The Big Idea: Cory Doctorow
Posted on April 26, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 13 Comments
For years, Cory Doctorow has carved one of the most idiosyncratic paths in the genre of science fiction and fantasy, combining feats of speculative fiction with a life of political and social advocacy in the tech sphere. So it’s no surprise that his new novel Red Team Blues combines elements of both for something new and exciting in his canon. And it all starts with some very science fictional software… that you probably have on your computer right now.
Martin Hench is a 67 year old forensic accountant, the star of my new novel Red Team Blues, an anti-finance finance thriller that readers inhale in a single sitting. As Molly White of Web3 is Going Just Great put it: “don’t start reading it at bedtime if you have to be awake for something the next morning.”
Marty’s spent 40 years tracking down Silicon Valley’s most eye-watering finance scams and he’s ready to retire – as soon as he finishes one last job. His old pal Danny Lazer’s lost the keys to the backdoor he unwisely put in his new cryptocurrency, and if he doesn’t get them back before someone makes a billion dollars disappear, the money-launderers and crime syndicates who depend on Danny’s system are going to insert themselves into his life in sudden, violent ways.
That’s the kick-off to a caper novel about the curdled dream of Silicon Valley, where finance transformed the wild and beautiful and heroically ugly and weird internet into five giant websites, each filled with screenshots of the other four, fine-tuned to deprive us of our privacy, our mental equilibrium, and, of course, our cash.
I’ve written dozens of books, most of them science fiction novels, but I’ve never written a detective novel…until now. But Marty Hench isn’t a typical private eye. His origin story is intensely science fictional, because it is intimately bound up in the story of the spreadsheet – the most science fictional technology most of us will use in any given day.
Marty’s life as Silicon Valley’s hardest-charging, highest-demand forensic accountant starts in the early 1980s, when, as an MIT engineering student, he encounters his first personal computers, and with them, a program called Lotus 1-2-3, the first mass-scale commercial spreadsheet program (it was preceded by the groundbreaking VisiCalc).
In those early years, there were three groups of people who were excited about the possibilities for spreadsheets:
- Bookkeepers, accountants and financial officers, who saw them as a way to automate the boring part of their work;
- Money launderers, criminals and cheats, who saw spreadsheets as a way to make money disappear; and
- Marty: the guy who figured out that he could use spreadsheets to find the money that had been made to disappear.
That’s the seductive power of the spreadsheet: it’s a tool for asking what if? With just a little training, anyone can use a spreadsheet to build a model of some real-world phenomenon, from an ecosystem to a convenience store, from a lemonade stand to a retirement savings plan.
Then, by tapping new numbers into those neat little boxes, you can change the model: what if I pay a little less here? What if I save a little more there? What if this number goes up? What if it goes down?
Change a box and all the numbers dance in their gridwork of faint gray lines, and the future is revealed, with a terrible and false precision. Terrible and false because the model is a model, it’s not the world, and each of those sharp figures and formulae obscures a fuzzy, squishy set of assumptions, guesses and elisions. The model can suggest, it can guide – but it cannot predict.
This is what made spreadsheets so science fictional. As we lose ourselves in a futuristic parable, it’s easy to forget the “parable” part and start to think we’re experiencing the future. To forget that sf writers have no more insight into what the future holds than any of us, and thank goodness, because if the future could be predicted, there’d be no reason to do anything or try anything.
The future is up for grabs. That’s the point of science fiction: not to predict the future, but to inspire it, or ward it off. To work out our present-day anxieties and aspirations on the page, to provide a virtual fly-through of the emotional experience of this technological arrangement or that.
Likewise, a spreadsheet can help inform guesses or inspire strategies, but woe betide the person who takes the spreadsheet for the future, the map for the territory. That’s how you come to believe that your Collateralized Debt Obligations are “fully hedged” and in no way likely to destroy the global economy.
Red Team Blues came out on Tuesday, and as you read these words, I’m heading out on tour with it. You can catch me in Mountain View, Berkeley, San Francisco, Portland, Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, DC, Gaithersburg, Oxford, Hay, Manchester, Nottingham, London, and Berlin.
One especially fun tour stop is my May 5 appearance at the Books, Inc. in Mountain View, California. Why that one? Because my host that night is Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus and inventor of Lotus 1-2-3.
I hope you can make it – and whether or not you make it out on tour, I hope you give the book a try (don’t miss the DRM-free audiobook, read by Wil Wheaton!).
Red Team Blues: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s
Author Socials: Website|Mastodon|Medium|Tumblr|Twitter
As a civil engineer (transport planning) who has worked with spreadsheets almost daily for 30 years or more (including good old Lotus 123), this speaks to me in sooo many ways. It’s the easiest thing in the world to make a spreadsheet lie; they’re a black box to anyone on the outside.
Looking forward to seeing you, Mr. D., at the Cymera Festival in Edinburgh (when I do believe I am reading before your panel; so, no pressure on me then!).
Tapping in new numbers doesn’t change the model, it changes what the formulae used to create the model predict as a new ‘what if’ scenario. The latter part of the blog post does make this ‘data vs. model’ aspect clearer, but I think that this first ‘setup’ statement remains misleading.
Having been in the employ of management consultants in the mid 90s, I saw first hand the elevation of the spreadsheet into the Binary Oracle it has become. I was often reminded of the old physics joke with the punchline, “it only works for spherical chickens in zero g.” They believed sincerely in the whisperings from the dark cave that was Lotus and Excel and that the fictions they created there could be made manifest with just the right applications of Continuous Improvement and Organizational Change Management.
You got me at Lotus 123. I didn’t spend much time with VisiCalc before my employer switched our software. There were many who didn’t understand why we would ever want to have a personal computer in those days before the Internet and I said that Lotus 123 and Word Perfect were a good enough reason!
Doctorow mind-jarring wrong on his premise for the novel. The first thing I did was electronic design (transistors) and you can bet somebody immediately used it in their ‘lose 20 pounds idea’, or whatever. You could buy CP/M machines with an included office suite, which is how I got mine. Wrote essays for English, did plots for physics lab, etc. Useful as hell for college students. The included DB sucked rocks, though, and BASIC wasn’t enough. Ended up buying the Paradox DB, and a Pascal.
So it’s kind of about climate science, using finance as a metaphor…
I can’t wait to finish my current audiobook to start listening to Red Teams Blue!
In graduate school I had some business school guys in some of my classes. They used spreadsheets for everything, including taking class notes. I followed their lead and have some great vocabulary lists in Greek for example, which the program alphabetizes accurately. I also made a typical spreadsheet complete with formulae to work out applicant statistics for a department’s hiring history and followup, which impressed the administrator. The book sounds like fun, on my list.
Got this for the Kindle this morning. For those in the UK, Amazon UK had it on sale for £5.99. I’ll start it once I finish my current Kindle book. This intrigued me as I’m old enough to remember using Lotus 123.
I could remember meeting both John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow for a book signing together in Pasadena at Vroman’s Bookstore.
Two great tastes that taste great together!
I’ve worked defense engineering projects for a couple of decades. We use spreadsheets (and their 2nd cousins, project management tools) extensively.
A feature of almost every review meeting with management was some MBA wanting to change a number in a cell, thinking that would somehow change reality and the project would cost less, or be done sooner.
@gregm, what do you think is the premise that Cory got wrong?