Whenever an industry comes to dominate a region, there are paradoxes about what its pioneers are able to achieve. Dissenters always come up alongside those building a status quo. California is a birthplace of fast food and efficiency—it’s also a hub for the slow food movement. California is hard-hit by drought and climate change, but it’s also a place where, historically, environmentalists have been able to flourish and stay on the cutting edge of environmental regulations, leading on sustainability.
Big Tech has a large share of California’s economy, but a fair number of Bay Area tech workers are either liberals or libertarians who believe strongly in civil liberties and support organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital civil rights organization based in San Francisco. While the state has an unusually large share of peaceniks and liberal utopians, it is also known for a defense-minded technology sector, funded, sometimes, by government agencies like the CIA and NASA.
Kim Stanley Robinson wrote about the future of the defense industry in our November pick, The Gold Coast. The military strategist Sun Tzu advised that you have to know your enemy and think like your enemy, and know yourself, to have a chance. Extrapolating a bit, you’d only have a decent shot at transforming an imbalanced industry, then, by having a decent understanding of how it works, what rules it plays by. You see a voracious intelligence, a respect for knowledge, in Robinson’s observant, grounded science fiction, and you see it in the work of other speculative writers in California, like the journalist and science fiction novelist Cory Doctorow, too.
We are delighted to welcome Doctorow to the California Book Club as a special guest to discuss The Gold Coast with Robinson and CBC host John Freeman. Doctorow’s books include Little Brother, Homeland, Attack Surface, and Radicalized: Four Tales of Our Present Moment. He was the coeditor of the blog Boing Boing until 2020 and remains an activist for the liberalization of copyright laws; he’s written frequently over the years about digital rights management. Doctorow cofounded Opencola, a free-software peer-to-peer company, and cofounded the UK Open Rights Group of the EFF. He continues to speak on copyright, and he blogs about data collection, trackers, and ads at Pluralistic. Understanding the role of copyright law, he makes unusual and interesting choices—fueled by a ton of intellectual integrity—to improve fan access to his work.
Most recently, with Rebecca Giblin, Doctorow coauthored Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back. This is a searing and comprehensive take on the oligopolies that control creative markets, from publishing to music distribution to film distribution. Our existing technology laws, Doctorow and Giblin argue, favor behemoth corporations like Amazon and Apple and Spotify. Through manipulation of the law and by expanding their digital reach to control their sectors, producers and platforms and other companies are able to seize disproportionate profits, exploiting the creative labor of the artists, filmmakers, musicians, and writers whose passions are weaponized against them. Wanting to get their work to audiences, these creators are left with no other choice than to go through the behemoths.
Robinson and Doctorow share an abiding fascination with power imbalances and how the powerful manipulate material conditions and governing rules to produce society. What kind of corporate bludgeoning and governmental overreach could lead us to conditions like the ones described in Robinson’s fictional Orange County of 2027? I once spoke to a Silicon Valley thinker who believed that you can’t rant about the problems and not offer any solutions—Doctorow and Giblin offer some intriguing perspectives on how we might get to a different place for creative people.
When you’re done with The Gold Coast, we recommend adventuring not only into the other two novels in Robinson’s triptych Three Californias but also into Chokepoint Capitalism, or one of Doctorow’s many novels, to keep exploring.•
Join us on Zoom on Tuesday, November 22, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Robinson will join Freeman and Doctorow to discuss The Gold Coast. Please stop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register here for the event.
Poet and critic Stephanie Burt (We Are Mermaids) writes about The Gold Coast. —Alta
Recently, Doctorow and Giblin joined Alta Live to discuss their eye-opening nonfiction work, Chokepoint Capitalism. —Alta
AMBITIOUS IN A CONFINED ERA
Sophia Stewart reviews Listen, World! How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman, a biography coauthored by Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert that explores the life of an influential but not well-known journalist, Elsie Robinson, who lived with “verve.” —Alta
Law professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (author of the forthcoming On Intersectionality: Essential Writings) asks readers to see that book bans and voter suppression often accompany each other. She writes, “What a truthful accounting of history would teach us about the current political moment is that suppression of votes and the silencing of voices have always been deeply intertwined.” —Los Angeles Times
Novelist R.O. Kwon (The Incendiaries) writes about experimental Bay Area–raised writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, published in 1982. —New Yorker
CBC selection panelist Lynell George writes about formative books. —LMU Magazine
SATIRE OF PUBLISHING
Cord Jefferson is directing an adaptation of Percival Everett’s acclaimed novel Erasure. Actor Jeffrey Wright is set to star. —Deadline
FREEDOM IN WRITING
Los Angeles author Amina Cain talks about her nonfiction book, A Horse at Night: On Writing, and writing as an open field, a place of possibility. —Bomb
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