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.

Then there was ‘‘True Names’’, the novella that Ben Rosenbaum and I had collaborated on for many years before finishing it and publishing it in 2009 (it was another Hugo nominee). We had a rough idea of where the story should go before we started (it was based on an overheated chat at a WorldCon party two years before), and at several points along the story’s sometimes rough trajectory it wasn’t clear what relationship it should have to Vernor Vinge’s famous story. But as we reached the crux of the story, the point that engendered the most argument, rewriting, and refactoring, the title became a kind of pole-star, guiding the story towards its successful resolution. Returning again and again to Vinge’s idea of disembodiment and Singularity drove our subconsciouses to try to find similar ideas of mortal peril among the godlike beings that come after us.

‘‘Anda’s Game’’, the first of my ‘‘title’’ stories, was directly inspired by John Kessel’s brilliant critical essay ‘‘Creating the Innocent Killer’’, which argues that Card’s Ender’s Game manipulates the reader into sympathizing with someone who pre-emptively murders everyone who bullies or chivvies or threatens him. It is a masterful analysis of how ‘‘good’’ stories – stories that enthrall and move us – can carry wicked payloads. ‘‘Anda’s Game’’, my story, was a rethinking of the Ender story, where the unhappy child trapped in an adult-made virtual world of bullies and the bullied elects instead to fight the system itself. It was reprinted in Best American Short Stories and has been adapted for comics twice (the second adaptation, FirstSecond’s book-length project, will be out in 2013).

Last year, Jonathan Strahan published my novella ‘‘Martian Chronicles’’ in his YA anthology Life on Mars. I had finally gotten around to Bradbury, and to his magnificent 1950 collection of stories bearing the same title. Bradbury’s cycle of Mars stories are bittersweet and lyrical, parables about the dangers of colonialism and modernity. They are part of the canon of stories that is cited as inspiration by space enthusiasts, space scientists, and space engineers. Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles has the same relationship to space exploration that Asimov’s three-laws stories have to robotics: stimulus, warning, and fascination.

But as the world contemplates the future of the space program today, the political football associated with the notion isn’t colonialism – it’s austerity. In a world where wealth has grown progressively more polarized, with ever-increasing dividends to non-productive (and often destructive) financial engineering, we find ourselves squabbling over which of the useful and beneficial parts of the economy will survive on the scraps. Hence the worst-ever reason to go to space – because we will surely destroy our planet, so we need to find other planets to chew up and turn into products, even if it comes at the expense of education or health care. My ‘‘Martian Chronicles’’ posits a modernized Mars myth where the colonialists are also the colonists, a vicious dog-eat-dog, take-no-prisoners TANSTAAFL society where the game is rigged from the start. If science fiction is the place we turn to discover our contemporary anxieties in the guise of futurism, then my ‘‘Chronicles’’ is a story about the way that our fears about what we in the rich world have done to the poor world have turned into fears that we are becoming the poor world ourselves.

‘‘The Brave Little Toaster’’ is my most recent ‘‘title’’ story, written to commission for TRSF, the science fiction magazine launched by MIT’s Technology Review. I remember reading Disch’s original story in a remaindered hardcover copy of The Best from F&SF when I was nine or ten and loving the sing-song voice juxtaposed against a high-tech parable. When TRSF’s editors asked me to write about the ‘‘Internet of Things,’’ in which every device in our lives is part of a networked, semi-autonomous, self-organizing whole, Disch’s tale crystallized the idea for me. In the year that the first pre-assembled personal computers went on sale, Disch spun a fantasy about anthropomorphized, wandering appliances. It was only natural that his title would become the organizing principle for a contemporary story about the behavior of appliances in an era where the engineers who grew up with his mythos began to turn them into real products. I’ve just received a copy of Jonathan Strahan’s latest Year’s Best SF anthology, with my ‘‘Brave Little Toaster’’ in its pages.

I have one more of these stories on the drawing board right now (not to say that more mightn’t follow): ‘‘The Man Who Sold the Moon’’, for the Neal Stephenson/Arizona State University project that seeks to inspire a real-world movement for private space exploration. The connection should be self-explanatory to anyone familiar with Heinlein’s 1950 story.

When I started on this project, I had no idea that it would take me as far as it has. Titles from well-known stories make for superb gimbals for the imagination, it turns out. These stories have met with commercial and critical success, but more importantly, they’ve surprised and delighted me, gelling loose-floating ideas into coherent narratives. They’ve given me enormous artistic satisfaction, and who could ask for anything more?

Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.

From the May 2012 issue of Locus Magazine

8 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow: A Prose By Any Other Name

  • May 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Interestingly enough, the idea of writing SF stories with the same titles as famous rock songs has always appealed to me. The idea of a story titled “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In The Shadows” sends shivers down my spine. 🙂

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  • May 4, 2012 at 8:26 am

    I find this to be an interesting flip-side of the coin to some advice Rudy Rucker gave about not using the same title as something else that has already been written. I can see where his advice definitely applies to novels. A short story taking the title from a book or other short story is perhaps different. And the way you’ve gone about it -creating intertextual conversations- is crucial.
    It will be interesting to see where else your subconscious takes you.

  • May 4, 2012 at 10:51 am

    Why do contemporary writers so often accept excessive regulation of their work by commercial interests. The Star Wars prequel film trilogy cries out for well-distributed interpretive covers whether or not anyone makes any profits from the work. The work of those who have attempted rewrites of, say, Phantom Menace is still not widely recognized or discussed.

  • May 4, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    I knew about your project and I love “Anda’s Game” but for some reason I never connected the two until now. D’oh.

  • May 4, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    What?! “True Names” wasn’t based on le Guin’s short story of that name?

  • May 6, 2012 at 11:15 am

    I am a published author. My book is The Silver. Available at Barnes&Noble, Amazon and at
    While I believe that it is wrong to delibritely plagurize someone else’s work. I don’t see anything wrong with writing a story that is simular to someone else’s story. For example, if a person writes a story about outer space, time travel, or robots even. It isn’t correct to assume that every other story about these general topics is plagurized. As far as titles go. I have seen many book titles that are simular or even exactly the same word for word. Both titles created completely innocent of the other. I still believe it is wrong to deliberately plagurize either stories or titles. That is not very often the case.

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