by Cory Doctorow
Reviewed by Bob Sojka
In 2009, my beautiful wife, Linda, didn’t divorce me. She could have. That summer I bought 6,500 sci-fi, fantasy and horror books for $600 at a garage sale (two pickup loads). Five months later, she gave me a half dozen new sci-fi books for Christmas. Looking back, it seems strangely appropriate that Makers by Cory Doctorow was among her choices.
What does this have to do with Doctorow’s book? More than you might think. Makers is a book about an America, just a few steps into the future. It is collapsing functionally and financially from a sputtering of its entrepreneurial engine, coupled with its penchant for poorly targeted over-spending (both public and personal) and the resulting ever-growing accumulation (or landfilling) of instantly obsolete junk. It is also an America that is daily being redefined by tsunamis of technical innovation, especially in the world of information management, an arena that Cory Doctorow seems particularly fond of performing in.
Makers begins with a longish dissertation on the difficulty of re-inventing entrepreneurialism in a way that reignites individual enterprise, broad spectrum consumerism and the general economy (or maybe it was the other way around; I’m still not sure). The introductory expository and philosophical material was delivered largely in an opening lecture scene. Happily, once clear of the message-laden intro, Doctorow sweeps us up on a far more engaging techno-geekery thrill ride. He takes us to the funky south Florida flee-market world that is the true epicenter of the novel. In this sweaty, malodorous, junk and junkfood jungle, Doctorow introduces us to this most modern conjunction of crises and opportunity. His world is populated with wacky characters that intersect in a multiverse of planned and accidental meetings, on the internet, through urban myths, rumors and lawsuits. The personal interactions and the entrepreneurial chemistries that develop, become the high-lo novel concept that makes Makers worth reading.
The characters of Makers are portrayed pretty much as good guys and bad guys. The key good guys include Suzanne Church, the technology blogger that chronicles (and to an extent acts as catalyst to) the entire saga, Landon Kettlewell, a self made bazillionaire ala Burt Rutan, Steve Jobs, T. Boone Pickens et al. who tosses his mega accomplishments aside and attempts to reinvent the entire economy through his vision of small scale entrepreneurialism, and Lester Banks and Perry Gibbons, the Mutt and Jeff techno-geek pair that live ensconced amid the south Florida flee-market squalor, inventing stuff of dubious worth from society’s junk pile. The bad guys include Rat-Tooth Freddy, the pot stirring and nay saying techno-tattler with journalistic delusions, and Sammy, the dodgy Disney executive that works to undermine “the ride” (Lester and Perry’s definitive invention, which Doctorow presents as iconic of the future geeketry that will remake the world economy).
The Disney and Silicon Valley business approaches and their images to the world are portrayed in less than complimentary terms throughout Makers, as is almost anything one would conventionally regard as orderly, tidy, or upscale. Makers portrays the chaotic dystopic conditions that Doctorow believes will typify the early decades of this new millennium as a kind of primordial soup that gives rise to the next era of human enterprise. The nature of innovation, whether it is better if it arises naturally and organically or whether it is better when ploddingly planned and directed, is a question or a thesis that Doctorow explores (consciously or unconsciously) throughout Makers.
Between mosquito swats, police rousts, syrupy breakfast binges, and quasi-homeless riots, Doctorow formulates his thought provoking and sugar-high-dweebly-interesting, if improbable, solutions to the throw away culture of soft goods and the speculative bubble economy that has dominated the last two decades. A side benefit of his edgy vision, is a new strategy for disposal of (recycling-- sort of) society’s junk. Doctorow takes his readers on variety of technogeekery tangents, exploring (to name a few): “Fatkin” technology (a hypothetical biochemical therapy) to transform the morbidly obese into action-figure-doll-look-alikes; “snitch-tag” microchips (RFIDs) to allow the slovenly to continue to live in organizational chaos but still find their stuff, even if mixed up with an equally disorganized room-mate’s stuff; and 3-D printers (think Star Trek replicators), the first generation of which are already a commercial reality.
The ultimate invention envisioned in Makers is “the ride.” The ride is something akin to those amusement park attractions where you sit in a little car and are scooted around in a darkened building that recreates a fictional reality, based on a defined theme. In Makers the ride’s theme is presented as a major part of the innovation. I confess I had a hard time perceiving what exactly the actual theme or story of the ride was (or why it was supposedly so compelling). To the best of my understanding, the ride told the story of life at the moment, especially life for folks whose existences were more invested in geekery and social networking than in “traditional reality.” Every imaginable bit of cutting edge techno-gadgetry and social networking is used to update the ride on a daily basis, as well as to replicate the ride. Eventually every hamlet with a vacant warehouse or tent decides to have an iteration of the ride. Rapid replication of the ride becomes a driving story element because of a nearly insatiable planet-wide demand for the experience. I gave Makers a pass here because of the vagueness of the pitch. I just accepted that the uniqueness and compelling nature of the ride is hard to understand in a current day context.
We took a two-week trip to visit friends in Florida just after the New Year (and the marital nuclear winter that followed my summer book binge). On the plane I read Makers, which is set in the flee-market communities between Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, our exact destination. We hadn’t planned on any flee marketing, but the book demanded a modification of our itinerary. I witnessed first hand, the uncanny finesse with which Doctorow conveys the gritty suburban subsistence culture that is the other-worldly suspension of conventional reality already in our midst. As I walked amid miles of booths teeming with hawkers, shills, fences, scavengers and petty opportunists of all stripes, I felt as though I had fallen through the looking glass and arrived in the pages of Makers.
In a way, Makers’ capacity for conveying the plight of the gritty underprivileged and their desire for individual paths of entrepreneurialism to uplift their situation is the novel’s greatest strength. The overly idealistic treatment of the theme, however, sometimes eroded verisimilitude for me. Kettlewell, Banks and Gibbons were certainly not saints, but they were presented so flatteringly as catalysts for good that the feel of Makers never quite made it all the way to plausible reality. Doctorow used the capacity for behind the scenes mega dollar corruption and amorality of corporations as a key plot driving force. He was less realistic in acknowledging the pervasiveness of petty crime and individual corruption that glues so many downtrodden residents of the underclass to their personal situations. I kept looking for a bit more balance in the recognition of real and metaphorical pickpockets and thugs in the flee market tent cities and cyber communities, to balance that portrayed in the boardrooms. Once the monetary value of the ride starts to become evident, Makers does a better job of pointing to the corrosion of altruistic and idealistic idea sharing that propagates the ride as a socio-economic phenomenon. But even so, the novel seems somewhat challenged to completely acknowledge that financial opportunity has the potential to corrupt as much as to uplift, regardless of the idealism of the community from which the opportunity arises.
I was gratified that Doctorow did not try to project the world of Makers as a glossy-eyed utopia. He acknowledged (if perhaps too sparingly) that there would be potholes on this road to technological entrepreneurialism. My biggest disappointment, however, was that he chose to focus on largely ephemeral uses of the technological potentialities he highlighted. This kept me from ever fully empathizing or even sympathizing with the characters of Makers or their “quest.” The exploration of the gadgetry was great fun, as was the consideration of the micro-impact of any of the individual tweaks to technology cataloged throughout the novel. Perhaps the whole could have been put to better use, ultimately, than contrasting the enterprise mindset of the Disney Empire vs. the techno-version of street corner carney-ride operators.
Despite the quibbles, though, I wouldn’t have missed reading Makers for the world. Makers, like life, moves in unexpected directions. At times we are gratified and enthused by what we see, at times we are disappointed and question how things could have turned out the way they did.
The book, in its entirety, was enormously thought provoking. It has afforded endless hours of discussion with friends. It has also provided significant fodder for my own vision(s) of the chaotic path to the future. I think any book that makes us uncomfortable about our choices, our paths, our goals, and the possible future(s) that can result, does a service. The same can be said about books that make us optimistic about the future. Cory Doctorow’s Makers manages to do both, which is probably closer to portrayal of a conceivable reality than most fiction achieves. I suspect that Makers is so unique in its theme and its approach that it will gain authority with time. Neither Orwell’s “1984” nor Huxley’s “Brave New World” turned out to be Polaroid’s of the future, yet they foretold facets of our current world that are unmistakably familiar from the visions they presented. I’m betting Doctorow’s Makers may be among the I-told-you-so literature of the twenty second century.
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