In his new novella Chicken Little, Cory Doctorow riffs on themes that will be familiar to any reader of classic science fiction. Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants is cited in the preface – as is Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels – but I was also reminded of the short fiction of Philip K Dick, where near-future worlds drown in sickly-bright oceans of advertising hype. There’s even something here for fans of Joss Whedon’s movie Serenity.
That said, this story of an ad-man’s mission to serve up a surprise to a vat-dwelling immortal is entirely its own. With crisp, penetrative prose, Doctorow sketches his vision of a world in which most products can be conjured at a whim by 3D printers: a concept much closer now to reality than it was when Pohl and Dick were writing.
More intriguing to me, however, are the stories behind the technology, such as the tortuous way in which the immortal Buhle (an old man saved from death by a process that can only be described as machine-enhanced pickling, and who’s so wealthy he’s become a sovereign state) contrives to alter the laws regulating the noise output of personal jet-packs. This particular tale of corporate maniplulation manages to be absurd and utterly plausible both at the same time. It’s oddly disturbing too.
Best of all is the confidence and effortless ease with which Doctorow spins a tall tale laced with unspoken horrors. Behind the whimsy of the advertising agency setting – and despite the icky reality that goes with the idea of keeping ancient humans alive way beyond their natural years – there are hard and topical warnings under the skin: the insidious growth of the slave trade, genetic modification and, as Doctorow puts it, econopocalypse.
Lately, science fiction literature gets criticised as being irrelevant because, as some commentators put it, we’re already living in the future. With Chicken Little, Cory Doctorow proves that science fiction is alive and kicking. If there’s a reason for that, it’s because SF isn’t about the future at all, but about the endless capacity of human beings to evolve in extraordinary ways.