Cory Doctorow has made a name for himself in both science fiction and young adult fiction circles during the past decade or so that he’s been actively working in the fields. Entertainment Weekly has gushed that Doctorow is “rapidly emerging as the William Gibson of his generation” – never mind the fact that the author has arguably yet to write anything as enduring and lasting as Neuromancer.
He’s also considered to be something of a visionary in my own personal networking circles: my former boss at a Toronto design agency considers Doctorow’s 2004 novel Eastern Standard Tribe to be a seminal text that all information architects and user experience designers (both jobs of which I currently do and, in the past, have been embroiled with) should read to get a sense of where the world of information is going. If you add onto that Doctorow’s role as an essayist, blogger and technological evangelist/lobbyist, the guy certainly holds a large slice of the pie when it comes to thinking about the future and where the world is headed.
Which leads us to his latest offering, The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, which is a novella that runs about a scant 100 pages and has been published as part of PM Press’ Outspoken Authors series. The publisher has also recently printed works from such science fiction or fantasy luminaries as Michael Moorcock, Ursula Le Guin and Rudy Rucker, so that’s some very fine company to keep. The book also comes with the text of an influential speech that Doctorow gave to the 2010 World Science Fiction Convention, as well as an interview conducted by noted genre author Terry Bisson to round out things.
Here’s the thing though about the main attraction, the novella: I’d love to tell you all what it is about, but I can’t. I simply can’t make heads or tails of the narrative, or what generally is going on. Particularly the ending. The whole thing doesn’t make a whole whack of sense to me, and I consider myself to be a fairly intelligent human being with a handle on understanding the world and the arts. So if you’ve read this novella and you’d like to leave a comment below, that would be most welcome. Because I just can’t get what Doctorow was trying to do with The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow. At all.
That leads me to talk about the work’s individual parts, the stuff that I could parse. To those who are wondering where the title comes from, it’s a motif that appears in Walt Disney’s 1964 “The Carousel of Progress” exhibit that debuted at the New York World’s Fair and is now an attraction in the Magic Kingdom of the Walt Disney World Resort. So, yes, The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow continues with Doctorow’s infatuation with all things related to Disney – see also his 2003 debut novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.
The novella also starts out with a bit of a bang with an attack by robots on a dystopian future vision of Detroit, and Doctorow’s prose has a certain Gosh! Wow! factor to it in the best sense of the old Tom Swift books of juvenile science fiction. However, the plot is muddy and involves a young boy who is genetically engineered to be, in Doctorow’s words, “immortal”, though he seems to be aging only at a very slow pace – he physically appears to be about 11 years old throughout much of the book. He falls in love with a girl who later grows up to be a middle-aged woman, and, yes, sex is involved, making the novella fall a little uncomfortably close to the realm of child pornography in literature.
From there, things just get murkier and murkier until they simply no longer make much sense. The novella is naturally a quick read, and one can marvel at the way that the author is able to string sentences together in a metronomic yet nonsensical way. (Opening line: “I piloted the Mecha through the streets of Detroit, hunting wumpuses.”) There’s a certain sense of Dr. Seussian whimsy to The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, but that’s pretty much all that you can take away from it in this writer’s estimation.
As for the “bonus” material, it’s mildly engaging. Doctorow’s keynote speech on “Creativity vs. Copyright” is interesting, although it reads much like a CliffsNotes of the author’s view on the subject. I have the same problem with this piece as I do much of Doctorow’s non-fiction essays, some of which were recently collected into the book Context, and that is that they feel like an entire book is waiting to jump out of them – that they are fragmented and just contain pencil sketches of ideas that should be written out in a much more robust format.
The interview that follows isn’t really all that revelatory, either, though it does give one a very slight pie-slice view of what Doctorow was aiming for in The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow in that he was trying to write about a world in which progress has naturally come to a halt. It would have been great if this idea was fleshed out a bit more in the interview, making it much more contextual to the book. Similarly, perhaps The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow should have been a novel: it just seems so slight and quickly plotted that it ceases to be coherent, and perhaps using a broader canvas might have teased out the grandiose theme Doctorow was aiming for a bit better.
Overall, I’d say that The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow is probably best devoured by those who are die-hard fans of Doctorow’s particular world view and better off shunned by the rest of us. It’s a mere bauble or trinket: you get the impression that Doctorow had a gas while writing it, but it seems to be more of a work whose impact is best left in the writer’s imagination. In a way, this novella does show that he has a Gibson-like trait in that he doesn’t know how to adequately finish a story, much like the fellow Canadian author whose work he has been compared to.
The best thing one can say about the The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow is that it’s a mercifully quick to read, because, as the work stands, it runs out of places to go to and simply feels like mere hubris. Doctorow may be a cutting-edge author with some interesting things to say, even if you don’t always see eye-to-eye with him (for instance, he bemoans the fact in the speech published in this edition that Amazon puts Digital Rights Management on its e-books, but a quick look on Amazon.com shows that this novella is retailing for the Kindle, making him seem to be a bit of a hypocrite).
The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow ultimately wields a very dull blade, and is hardly what one would expect from someone who is considered to be a new pioneer in the field of SF. Unless you’re a fan, as noted, take a pass. You won’t miss very much. Believe me.