Progress or Change? Cory Doctorow's The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow
By Stefan Raets
November 1, 2011
When we meet Jimmy Yensid, the hero of Cory Doctorow’s new novella The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, he is aboard his giant mecha and hunting down a wumpus in the abandoned city of Detroit, until he comes under attack from a rival group of mechas. The resulting action scene is spectacular—and really made me want to dig out my ancient Mechwarrior games—but as you’d expect from Doctorow, there’s much more going on than meets the eye.
Jimmy is a transhuman boy, genetically engineered to be as close to immortal as you can get. The wumpuses are ravenous mechanical monsters who consume any non-organic matter they find and recycle it into arable soil. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s father is actually trying to preserve Detroit, the last standing city in the United States, as a historical artifact.
The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow is the latest installment in the wonderful Outspoken Authors series by PM Press. In addition to the title novella, the book also contains the text of Cory’s “Creativity vs. Copyright” address to the 2010 World Science Fiction Convention, and a scintillating interview conducted by Terry Bisson. I don’t use the word “scintillating” very often: this really is an excellent, informative, fun conversation between two sparkling minds, and its inclusion adds considerable value to the book. The main course, however, is of course the grim but wonderful title novella.
The central theme Doctorow is playing with throughout The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow is progress, or maybe more exactly, progress versus change. As Jimmy puts it:
[...] we didn’t have “progress” anymore. We’d outgrown progress. What we had was change. Things changed whenever anyone wanted to change them: design and launch a fleet of wumpuses, or figure out a way to put an emotional antenna in your head, or create a fleet of killer robots, or invent immortality, or gengineer your goats to give silk. Just do it. It’ll catch on, or it won’t. Maybe it’ll catch itself on. Then the world is... different. Then someone else changes it.
The world Jimmy lives in is a dystopian wasteland. Detroit is the last standing city. Jimmy and his dad live in the abandoned Comerica Park baseball stadium. One of their prized possessions is the lovingly restored Carousel of Progress exhibit from Disneyworld. In this future, technology has taken enormous strides, but the result isn’t a streamlined, high-tech world: all we see is an abandoned city, or a cult-like mini-society that monitors and equalizes everyone’s emotions, or a guerrilla movement in the wilderness trying to preserve its last vestiges of functioning technology from the ecological warfare of the rampant wumpuses.
In the world of The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, change doesn’t equal progress.
Likewise our hero Jimmy. His gengineered state causes him to age at an incredibly slow pace. Throughout several decades he stays stuck on the edge of prepubescence, struggling with his urges and dreams and hormonal drives. Much like the animatronic family in the Carousel of Progress, he’s frozen in time. The status quo slowly drives him crazy: he desperately wants to grow up, wants to find a “cure” for his immortality, but will growing up be an improvement? Peter Pan is actually being forced to remain a boy forever, and he wants to grow up. It’s Disney in reverse (notice Jimmy’s last name?) and coming from an author who’s written some excellent YA novels in recent years, it’s really a startling plot device.
The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow is filled with people and factions and groups who try to change the world for the better, often with horrific results, usually aiming for or resulting in a scary status quo that offers peace in the form of perpetual stagnation. Characters like Jimmy and his father struggle to maintain an identity in the constant onslaught of uniformity, whether it’s a cult that turns its members’ personalities into emotional mush or a machine that turns anything artificial into mulch. The title, which refers to a song on the Carousel of Progress soundtrack, has to be one of the most cynical lines in Doctorow’s bibliography. Even though much of this novella is an entertaining read, the end result is as grim as it gets for Doctorow. Don’t get me wrong: I loved The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow and recommend it wholeheartedly, but reading it is a sobering experience if you come into it expecting the exuberant techno-optimism often found in Cory’s fiction and non-fiction.
The only real complaint I have about this novella is simply that it’s, well, a novella. It’s just too short.
There’s more than enough material here for a full length novel. The story is divided in four sections, and the final two are considerably shorter than the first ones. This makes those last two chapters, especially the final one, feel like an extended epilogue, which is a shame because they contain some of the most startling ideas and revelations in the entire book. It’s always a good sign when you want any piece of fiction to be longer than it really is—if anything, it’s an indication that the signal-to-noise ratio is very high—but in this case the transitions between the chapters are a bit abrupt, and the story’s resolution feels almost rushed. I would have happily read another few hundred pages, filling in the gaps and expanding the story and the characters, but much like in the Carousel of Progress, there’s no filler between the brief flashes we’re shown of the characters’ lives.
For fans of Cory Doctorow, reading The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow will be a no-brainer. Grim as it is, it’s also as thought-provoking as anything he’s written. If you’re new to the author, start with the interview in the back of the book to get a taste of the fireworks factory that is Cory Doctorow’s mind, then read the novella for an example of why he’s a cultural force to be reckoned with, and finish up with the “Copyright vs. Creativity” speech to get a quick rundown of some of Cory’s core beliefs. This is a lovely little book in every respect, from its stylish design to its phenomenal content.