Saturday, May 5, 2012

Cory Doctorow: A Prose By Any Other Name

From Locus Online: Cory Doctorow: A Prose By Any Other Name
Back in 2005, I did something weird. I decided that I would embark on a project to write short stories with the same (or similar) titles to famous science fiction books and stories. My initial motivation for this was Ray Bradbury objecting to Michael Moore calling a movie Fahrenheit 9/11, which led Bradbury to call Moore an ‘‘asshole’’ and a ‘‘horrible human being’’ who’d ‘‘stolen’’ the title. Like many other writers, Bradbury has rightfully never shied from taking and adapting titles from other writers and works (‘‘I Sing the Body Electric’’, ‘‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’’, ‘‘The Women’’, etc.), and I thought that this was a silly thing for a respected writer to say. I suspected that, despite his denials, Bradbury disagreed with Moore’s politics and invented an ad hoc ethical code regarding titles to explain why what he did to Walt Whitman was fundamentally different from what Moore had done to him.

The more I thought about writing stories with ‘‘borrowed’’ titles, the more interesting it all got. Every time I thought about a famous title – one I hated, one I loved, one I had mixed feelings about – I found my subconscious simmering and then bubbling over with ideas. Stories – more so than novels – are often the product of odd subconscious associations. I’ll see something, I’ll see something else, the two will rub together, and wham, there’s a story idea crystallizing in my mind, and off I go to find a keyboard.

But for every story fragment that finds a complementary fragment to bond with and form into an idea, there are dozens of lonely haploids, grains of potential that never find another grain to join and synthesize with. Seven years into the project, the single most significant and reliable trait of ‘‘title’’ stories is that the titles exert a powerful gravity on story fragments, aggregating them into full-blown inspiration.

Take ‘‘I, Robot’’, the story that was inspired by Asimov’s three-laws stories (Asimov’s collection I, Robot, took its title from an Eando Binder story of the same name – Binder, of course, got it from I, Claudius). For some time I had been entertaining the germ of a story about the dangers of designing computers so that users can’t control them and so that the authorities can, and it just wouldn’t gel into a narrative. Then, as I was packing up a shelf-load of Isaac Asimov books (leftovers from a re-read I did when writing a Wired story on the I, Robot film adaptation) I was skewered on the realization that I, Robot was exactly what my story fragment was missing.

There, buried in Asimov’s Ur-canon about the role that robots will play in our world, I found one of the earliest examples of the fallacy that society can closely regulate computers without regulating everything that computers are used for. The constraints that Asimov regulates into the positronic brain are so stable that they persist for thousands of years, through multiple collapses and resurgences of civilization, across the galaxy. Though the three laws present riddles and puzzles to Asimov’s people (human and robotic), they are never really the source of huge social spasms, though they amount to a kind of Prohibition for Turing-completeness, an incest-taboo against Von Neumann architecture. Once I had the title, the entire story snapped into place, and I wrote it in a weekend. It won the Locus award and was nominated for the Hugo, and has been reprinted numerous times, adapted for audio and comics, and continues to generate a fair whack of fan-mail.

As it turned out, I still had something to say about Asimov, even after finishing ‘‘I, Robot’’. Hence my 2006 story, ‘‘I, Row-Boat’’, which considered the effect of norms – not laws – as a form of technological regulation. In hindsight, this was a story about how telling science-fiction stories about how robots should behave was every bit as powerful as passing laws about it. I wrote this one before I learned that Brooklyn’s MakerBot – a company that makes 3D printers – was presented with a commercial lease that required the company to ensure that none of its products would violate Asimov’s three laws.

(There's more to the article, but check it out at the original link if interested. The above is all that dealt with Asimov.)

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