My apologies from the opening line; I normally try to rein it in, but in this case can’t help but let vitriol overflow into the review. Cory Doctorow’s 2010 novella There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow/Now Is the Best Time of Your Life is a piece of fiction that needs to be called out—to be taken to task for content, and in the process exposed for the troubling story that it is. Before diving into the critique, I will first give the novella the respect of outlining the plot.
There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow/Now Is the Best Time of Your Life (TaGBBT/NitBToYL) is the story of Jimmy, an ‘immortal’ growing up in post-industrial, post-human, post-everything America. His father part of the pro-tech faction of what remains of humanity, Jimmy spends his days on patrol in a mecha with his robo-dogs hunting for wumpuses—self-replicating machines that traipse the remnants of the US breaking non-organic materials down into their basic components so that forests can regrow and the natural landscape one day return. Jimmy’s immortal condition meaning he has a maturing mind stuck in the body of a ten year boy, conversing with the cute Lacey while out hunting in his mecha one day is anything but comfortable. But teenage love quickly becomes the furthest thing from his mind as a band of enemy mechas attack Detroit, Jimmy the only thing that stands between a reversion to primitivism and the progress of science.
It took effort, but I feel that paragraph does the opening chapter of TaGBBT/NitBToYL justice. What happens thereafter, well, only distances itself from the ideas of ‘coherent storyline’, ‘progressive worldview’, and ‘intelligent commentary’ one maddening step at a time.
Having read James Patrick Kelly’s Burn, I know it’s possibile the ideals of treehuggers and technological progressives can be compromised with more coherence. Though attempted, Doctorow simply does not possess the writerly self-awareness to know when his plot has diverged from the theme being aimed at. Elements that are supposed to have relevance are not shaded in ideological-enough fashion to fall into the desired thematic position. It’s obvious Doctorow is trying to comment on technological change through the evolution of Jimmy’s attitude towards immortality, but given the elements which are intended to juxtapose and highlight this evolution do not likewise undergo change or receive little to no exposition time undercuts the power of the message dramatically—particularly upon the denouement and looking back to collate the pieces. In short, the ideas are muddled and unbalanced.
Further inconsistencies are plot and characterization. The degrees the reader must suspend their disbelief amps continuously up as the plot evolves—and a boy and his father defending an entire city against robot armies with only their mechas is just the first. Other degrees include certain conspiracy theories and relationship transitions. But spelling the doom of the story is characterization—if empty souls fill with thoughts that only fit plot can be called as such. At one point Jimmy’s father dies. The event is handled with the same emotion one has learning the family toaster needs to be replaced. Yet (and it’s a big yet) throughout the story Jimmy spends his time keeping his father’s dream alive with the Disney carousel. Obviously the man and his ideas meant something to the boy, so where is the reaction to his death? The fact Lacey flops back and forth between independent woman with agency and sex tool is likewise concerning, not to mention all of the other characters are not even attempted to be clothed in anything but the garment of extras hanging around on set to utter one line and exit stage left.
But muddled plot and empty characters have been purveyed by genre before to no particularly ill effect. The doom of TaGBBT/NitBToYL is its sexual aspects; Jimmy’s physical coming-of-age is described in such terms as to make any sophisticated reader cringe. One quote reads “as she bent over her genitals winked at me. I realized I had an erection, a strange little boner in my pants.” If this is not weird enough, a page or two later the girl’s vagina is described metaphorically as “a wet mushroom.” Doctorow lacking skills as a stylist, the description comes across as purely juvenile. That the sex adds nothing to theme only makes the descriptions more immature and undesirable.
But, again, overt sexuality just for tittering and giggles is one thing; much of mainstream science fiction gets by on random steaminess. Sexual abuse, however, is another, which makes TaGBBT/NitBToYL unforgivable. In one scene Jimmy molests a girl while she sleeps. The girl’s response? She fucks Jimmy. Not only was she not bothered by his abuse, she encourages such behavior by giving him what he wanted. This is just wrong, wrong, wrong. And the fact Jimmy has the body of a 12 year old boy in the sex scene only brings child pornography into the discussion…
If a person were to have handed me TaGBBT/NitBToYL and told me it was written by a high schooler, I would have no problems believing it. Sexual fantasies where attractive women (complete with “nipples showing through thin fabric”) throw themselves onto the nerdy hero after he molests them as they sleep? Check. Video-game styled action featuring mech-warriors and evil robots being blown to bits? Check. A pack of loyal robo-dogs that play at the hero’s side and protect him with their lives? Check. Believing in some half-baked socio-political ideal that has yet to achieve a coherent perspective? Check. Bubbling, pretentious title? Check. I need to stop now—and so should the reader before picking up this novella.