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“When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth”

I have been a fan of the Disney theme parks for, depending on how you measure, either one or three decades. So when I heard that a science fiction novel called Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, set in a future Walt Disney World, was coming out, I put it on my to-read list, and moved on.

Then I found out that the author, Cory Doctorow, had made it freely available. While being blown away, I downloaded it, loaded it onto my handheld, and started reading it.

It was good. It was so good that I didn’t finish the electronic version; I wanted to support this author, and so I went and bought the book. And that was my first experience with free fiction–power, immediacy, value, and infectiousness.

When I had the idea to do this blog, I knew–knew–that the first author I was going to recommend was Cory Doctorow. I assumed that it would be Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. But then I decided that I was going to focus largely on shorter fiction, and I was left with a problem. Sure, I’ve told you that I’m going to make exceptions and include longer works, sometimes non-free fiction, sometimes non-fiction even. . . but to make an exception in the very first post seemed bad policy. If you can’t keep to a rule even once, it isn’t much of a rule, now, is it?

And then I remembered “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth”. A story which has never failed to make me cry, make me think, and make me proud to be a geek and former sysadmin. And I knew I didn’t have to break my rule for the first recommendation.

“When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” is an end of the world story, told from the point of view of one of a very special group of survivors. The people we spend the bulk of the story with are the sysadmins of the hosts and routers that run the Internet in and near Toronto. And as the world they know disappears forever, they have to decide what to do about that responsibility, while still balancing their personal issues and needs. And dealing with the decreasing amount of information flow–and hope–coming in from the outside world.

The story is enormous: it sketches the end of a large part of human civilization. It is tiny and personal: it details one man’s reaction to crushing loss. It is true to my experiences as a geek, as a sysadmin, and as a father. And it is beautiful. I’m proud to put it forth as my first recommendation to you. If you like this, you stand a good chance of having similar taste to me. If you don’t like this, I’d be very interested in knowing why.

Doctorow’s website
Text of the story

Full cast audio
Buy in print from Amazon
, as part of Doctorow’s collection Overclocked
Awards: 2007 Locus Award for best novelette

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  1. August 20, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Cory Doctorow does great stuff, doesn’t he? Is “When Sysadmins rules the earth” part of his short story collection “Overclocked”? I know I’ve read it, but I don’t remember if it was in a collection, or online, or what. I think when Doctorow starting putting all his stuff online for free, people thought he was crazy. Because people read the books, and didn’t buy them. But then people like me, and i bet you too, fell in love, and now have a growing shelf of Doctorow!

  2. Steve Feldon
    August 20, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    Yup, it’s in _Overclocked_.

    He often says that as a writer, his biggest obstacle isn’t piracy–it’s obscurity. And obviously, that worked in my case, since this guy I’d never heard of is now a favorite. 🙂

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