the Little Red Reviewer

With a Little Help, by Cory Doctorow

Posted on: March 25, 2011

With a Little Help, by Cory Doctorow

published in 2011

where I got it: received review copy from the author

why I read it: I is a Doctorow Fangirl.

Cory Doctorow is my favorite kind of futurenaut, one who is only a few years ahead of his time. His ideas are easily possible with existing technology, or nearly so.  And that is equally wonderful and terrifying.

If you’ve been following Doctorow on Boingboing, twitter, or his posts on Publishers Weekly, you know he’s been experimenting with Self Publishing.  Selfpub/epub/newpub is looking more and more to be the way of the future, and what better way to figure out how it all works than to dive in, head first? Alright, maybe not head first, as Doctorow has been publishing his writings under creative commons with everything downloadable on his website for years now.

What better way to experiment with self publishing, twitter marketing, print on demand, skipping the bookstore all together than by doing a short story volume with stories that involve the future of bookstores and publishing, arguements over systems transparencies, spam, 3D printing, gold farming, rogue AIs, and how google really works and then self publish it?   I told you my word for 2011 was going to be meta. Reading With a Little Help was a blast, as was reading about the situations the stories had originally been written for and how this lovely little volume came to exist in the first place.

at first blush, this looks like a book for nerds. It is, and it isn’t.  There’s plenty of old school tech jokes and plenty of new abbreviations that I couldn’t figure out.  Instead of cyberpunk-esque technobabble or Neal Stephenson infodumps, Doctorow keeps everything easy to understand, inviting even. I think if my Mom read this she’d feel confident enough to hop on Twitter or Facebook tomorrow. I should never let my Mom read this.

Some of these stories made me chuckle. Many of them caused my jaw to drop and my eyes to get all big and a thin whisper of “Holy Fuck” to escape my mouth. All of them made me think. And that, I believe, is the point.

Every entry in With a Little Help is a gem. Here are my thoughts on a few of them:
Epoch – Odell Vyphus is a lowly sysadmin. Maybe not so lowly, as he’s in charge of keeping BIGMAC running.  The year is 2037 or, and BIGMAC is a burly, 32bit, old school AI with a penchant for Mycroft Holmes and Hal9000 jokes. And he’s a dinasour. BIGMAC eats a ton of energy, kicks out too much heat, no one has published a paper on him in years, and grad students are bored with him.  Wait, why am I calling BIGMAC a “he”?  BIGMAC is a fancy schmancy computer. Definitely an “it”, not a “he”.   Odell also has a bad habit of anthropomorphizing talking computers.  And BIGMAC has developed a bad habit of running a killer endgame.  How do you kill a computer that doesn’t want to die? If it’s not alive, are you really killing it? How do you reconcile a very human reaction to an artificial construct that is begging for its life?

Scroogled – plainly put, this story scared the shit of out me. In this near future, Google is completely transparent about the fact that your search histories never die, adwords can be used to predict future behavior, personality profiles can be built via your blogspot connect friends, youtube searches, your picasa uploads and your gmail contact list.  The US government could really use a hand with “Doing Search Right”, and a deal is brokered. The technology has existed for years for this to be non-fiction. Do you remember everything you’ve ever googled and every picture you’ve ever viewed on someone’s Picasa or saved in your GoogleDocs?  Google does. Think about that for a minute, and realize nothing is stopping the Google Guys from waking up one day and deciding your search history is worth a pretty penny.

Visit the Sins – What if you could just turn yourself off during the boring times of the day, and turn yourself back on when things got exciting?  Skip dinner and go right to dessert? Skip the spelling test and go right to recess?  Sounds great, especially if you’ve got ADD or ADHD, doesn’t it?

Constitutional Crisis – Quick and hilarious, a must read for anyone whose ever dungeon crawled or run a guild in a MMORPG.

Human Readable – Trish and Rainer have a fragile relationships. He’s a network programmer, she’s a lawyer.  He doesn’t mind when he doesn’t understand every little function  of every little thing that makes the world work (or not work, as the case may be), and she believes systems  should be understandable by the lay person, and networks should be open and accountable. He still follows old fashioned Jewish mourning traditions (And as a Jew I found the descriptions hilarious, poignant, and true) even through he doesn’t believe in God, and she survives a network outage attack on her office by hiring every bike messenger in the area.   An intimate story that’s about exactly what it’s about.

dislaimer – I’m running my own experiment today:  writing a book review under the influence of massive amounts of cold medicine and brain fog. Apologies if this article is wonky, I am too impatient to wait until I feel better.


4 Responses to "With a Little Help, by Cory Doctorow"

Hey, interesting collection of reviews. You read more scifi than I do- I used to read much more.
I keep thinking that I need to read more Cory Doctorow. You look like a good person to offer guidance. Loved Down And Out In the Magic Kingdom- what should I try next?


Hi Elizabeth, thank you! if you’re looking for young adult, his Little Brother is just incredible. If you want something a little more adult, I highly suggest Makers.


I’ve only read one book by Cory Doctorow, Little Brother, and it didn’t really appeal to me. It was disappointing since I really wanted to like it. But your review of A Little Help has definitely intrigued me. I’ll definitely have to give it a try, and hopefully I’ll like it better then the last one.


[…] interesting because Doctorow wrote this back in 2010 (and I read it in his short story collection With a Little Help).  Following a sysadmin responsible for a giant, energy hogging, outdated super computer named […]


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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