Book Reviews, Reviews

When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow


When I was still in school, I remember Adrian telling me about a story he read where some sort of global Armageddon-level catastrophe happened, and the only survivors were the System Administrators who happened to be in their hermetically sealed, climate controlled, battery backed-up data centers. They communicated with each other via Usenet and IRC.

He couldn’t remember the name of the story or the author, so even though it sounded awesome, I mostly forgot about it. Right up until January 14th, when Cory Doctorow posted it on BoingBoing. It turns out he was the author Adrian couldn’t remember.

The story is short, and explaining the premise gives away quite a lot, so I won’t go into any more specifics, but I really enjoyed reading this. Doctorow spent some time as a Sys Admin, among his other nerd credentials, and you can feel it in the way the characters think and speak. I (obviously) have no clue how I’d react with an event like this, but the reactions of the characters seem plausible. There was one thing that really stuck out to me right at the end, though.

I don’t think it’s really a spoiler here, but there’s really only two ways this story could end: they stay in the data center forever and die of starvation, or they risk entering into the world. The next paragraph contains spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens, don’t read any further.

After they leave the data center, it seems they never went back. Given the higher purpose all these characters seemed to believe they were called to, it’s very surprising to me that they we so gung-ho about keeping their servers running for the first several days and then they never went back after discovering it was safe outside again. I guess it could be because the buildings had no power and the generators ran out of fuel, but surely that group could have engineered their way out of that problem.

I guess there are several possibilities for this:

  1. They are Sys Admins. Of course they went back. It’s who they are; it’s in their blood. Why would you think anything else?

  2. The world has been destroyed to the point that it isn’t feasible to stay alive while maintaining this no-longer critical infrastructure.

  3. The characters have experienced tragedy and they want to start new lives; leaving their old lives (and jobs) in the data center.

I don’t know which ending Doctorow intended. Or, frankly, which one I prefer.

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