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When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow

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“When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” is a 2007 science fiction novelette by Cory Doctorow. It is about the computer administrators who are trapped inside a data center during multiple, world-wide, terrorist attacks.

Non-Spoiler Summary In A Nutshell:

Toronto’s CN Tower - still standing! (photo by Túrelio, CC 2.5 License)Felix is one of those computer guys who has to respond to network problems in the middle of the night – you know, the ones who keep our networks running. So when he is called in at 2:00 am one night he figures it will be just a routine problem – only it turns out to be worse… much, MUCH worse. While he and other administrators are in their Toronto data center several terrorist groups unleash their fury. As they watch the city tumbling down around them they learn just how much of the worldwide population was devastated. Unable to leave they decide to keep the networks running as long as they can. In the meantime they communicate with people in other data centers and try to come up with some form of government. All the power struggles and political chaos that you would expect soon follows. In the end everyone is forced to decide how they want to live out their remaining days.

The CN Tower, a giant white-elephant needle of a building loomed to the east of them. It was askew, like a branch stuck in wet sand. Was it moving? It was. It was heeling over, slowly, but gaining speed, falling northeast toward the financial district. In a second, it slid over the tipping point and crashed down. They felt the shock, then heard it, the whole building rocking from the impact. A cloud of dust rose from the wreckage, and there was more thunder as the world’s tallest freestanding structure crashed through building after building.

“The Broadcast Centre’s coming down,” Van said. It was — the CBC’s towering building was collapsing in slow motion. People ran every way, were crushed by falling masonry. Seen through the port-hole, it was like watching a neat CGI trick downloaded from a file-sharing site.

Sysadmins were clustering around them now, jostling to see the destruction.

“What happened?” one of them asked.

“The CN Tower fell down,” Felix said. He sounded far away in his own ears.

My Two Cents:

• The good:

  • Cory Doctorow is a great writer – and this is a very cool story.
  • Being a “computer guy” myself I really enjoyed all the descriptions and talk about computer technology.
  • This may be a good or bad point depending on how you look at it, but the images and terror evoked by the attacks in “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” were quite realistic and scary. Feelings I had during 9/11 resurfaced – a sign of good story telling, but a little unnerving as well.

• The bad:

  • There was a little too much geekiness. I personally know lots of system administrators and most of them do not wear super hero tee shirts, or play role playing games or use every web 2.0 site in existence.
  • There were a few situations that made me scratch my head and say “Huh?” For example, how all the data centers kept running well past the time that their generators should have run out of gas.
  • This story contains loads of profanity – so stay away if you don’t like that kind of thing. Definitely not for kids!

Fact Sheet:
• Page Count: 24
• Word Count: 12,869
“When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” garnered the following awards:

  • It was the winner of the 2007 Locus Award for Best Novelette.

Where you can find “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth”:

Some Interesting Links:

  • Slice of SciFi talks about the IDW comic book adaptation of “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth”.

Craving More Stories?
If you enjoyed this story then you might also like Last Contact, about a field of dark energy that is devouring the entire universe, by Stephen Baxter.