Nothing can make me fall asleep faster than discussing economics…though a discussion of mathematics follows at a close second. That being said, it follows that it takes a talented writer to construct a compelling science fiction novel based not as much on technology as the economics that can affect its development. In his latest book, Makers, Cory Doctorow manages to do just that.
Makers focuses on four talented people that manage to change the world–at least for a short time. Landon Kettlewell is a golden-boy CEO who specializes in merging firms with little commonality and making a great deal of money in the bargain. After creating Kodacell (a merger of Kodak and Duracell), he seeks to create a new paradigm in creating a loose consortium of out-of-the-box entrepreneurs to build a strong, yet decentralized, corporation. Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks are exactly the type of creative “makers” that Kettlewell is looking for. The duo specialize in taking cast-off technologies and making new and useful things from the variations. Suzanne Church is a tech journalist and blogger who covers these “whirlwind changes to come” and eventually becomes part of the story. Together they all create “New Work”, a revolutionary bottom-up economic model that changes the world as they know it–until the system collapses and very nearly ruins them all.
Makers is primarily a book of ideas. The setting is a near future…near enough that characters remember the dot-com boom and bust but future enough to see some interesting technologies being perfected that are in their infancy today. “Tickle-Me Elmos” drive automobiles and RFID technology blossoms into the creation of smart spaces and a means to create harmony between roommates. Crowd-sourcing and networking shape the world in new and dynamic ways. 3-D printers become the new engine of manufacturing. A new economy emerges, fluorishes, and eventually burns, succumbing to more traditional market forces. Doctorow describes these ideas elegantly and knowledgeably. They not only seem feasible, you would swear they sprang directly from this week’s hottest tech-blog, not from Doctorow’s fertile imagination. Like all good ideas they are radical yet obvious…”the next inevitable step”.
Unfortunately the characterizations in the novel are not presented as clearly. We get to know the characters of Perry, Suzanne, and Sammy (a villainous Disney executive) pretty well. Through their eyes we see the other characters. Despite their heavy “screen time”, I never quite connected with the characters on a visceral level. They were more than AOPs (agents of the plot), but not much more. You like Perry and Lester, the “makers” in question, as models of the creative spirit. You like Suzanne’s energy, savvy, and toughness. But you don’t really know them very well.
Part of the problem was the dialog. As I said, Doctorow describes his ideas masterfully. Often the explanations are mouthed by the characters. While many of these conversations clarified the all-important ideas being presented, they rang false to the ear. Such explanations would play great in a tech journal or in a blog, but I simply didn’t buy that real people talk to each other the way Doctorow’s characters did. During these portions, the characters, however briefly, became AOPs and distanced me …they become personifications, not personalities.
The villains of the piece, Sammy Page and Rat-Faced Freddy (a jealous blogger/would-be pundit), are interesting and fun…you really love to hate these guys as the story progresses. In fact, it was the hope that they would receive their comeuppance that primarily drove me to finish the book. However, their archetypal depictions distract and, once again, distance the reader. Freddy is as physically odious as his personality . Sammy, the cocky young executive, purposefully maintains a stereotypical wolf-like appearance to keep his enemies (i.e. nearly everyone) off their game. While mustache-twirling villains can be fun (and these two undoubtedly are), Doctorow sabotages them with an a very awkwardly presented change of heart for one and a clever, but slightly flat, bad end for the other.
Ultimately, Makers is a brilliant, but flawed, novel. Its ideas are shiny, new, and full of hope. The future presented is so tangible that you fully expect to have a Disney-in-a-Box waiting for you under the Christmas tree. As I said before, Doctorow managed to make an old English major actually care about micro- and macro-economic forces and their effects on technological development. Unfortunately, the ideas shine with such brilliance that the characters, the engines of the novel, pale in comparison.