Tor, 2009, 416 pages, C$31.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1279-2
I wish I could praise Cory Doctorow’s latest novel Makers without reservations. I’ve been a Doctorow fan since Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, read Boingboing for just as long, met him a few times and have reviewed all of his books with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Makers is his most ambitious work for adults yet; a big book tackling an upcoming technological revolution and its aftermath. It weighs in at a page count that alludes to Toronto’s phone area code and also marks Doctorow’s first full-sized hardcover. The cover tagline is nothing less than “A Novel of the Whirlwind Changes to Come.” Published months after his Hugo nomination for Little Brother, there’s little doubt that Makers is a big novel and a significant publication of the year in Science Fiction and techno-nerd circles.
For a while, the book seems to deliver on its promises. Taking place in a future not too far away, it begins by telling us about a radical shift in American Business. “New Work” is about repurposing existing technologies, assembling it in ways unexpected by its original makers and creating something new out of available pieces. It’s also a way of working that upsets the corporate hierarchies, seeks modest profits from continuous innovations and has little use for the traditional ways of business. The chronicler of this era is one Suzanne Church, tech-journalist turned blogger as her print publisher downsizes. Fortunately, she knows just the right people: Perry and Lester, two garage engineers who love to make new stuff and so become the poster-boys of “New Work”. Various hacks and tech demos later, they look poised to make the world go kablooie with exciting new technologies. It doesn’t last. By the time the first third of the novel passes by, the “New Work” boom has turned to bomb, and when the second section picks up years later, all that’s left is a wikified theme park.
In some ways, this first section sets expectations that the rest of the book can’t match. The first section had ideas bubbling in my mind; about techno-fascism and what happens to those who like stability, about worker’s rights in “New Work”, about the way Doctorow was recapitulating lessons from the dot-com years and applying them to a more physical sphere of innovation. But as Makers advances, it becomes weirder, more specific, more personal and also less interesting. The point of the novel, we eventually realize, is what happens when everyone has given up; it’s about how real innovators establish movements whatever the circumstances. It’s not about the inevitable singularity, but about the cultural give-and-take of innovation.
At times, Makers feels like a mashup of popular Boingboing tags: Here’s a little bit of Disney, here’s a big of copyfighting; here’s a bit of civil right anger; here’s a lot of Maker magazine (obviously a major influence on the novel) and so on. The problems start occurring when Doctorow’s pet obsessions quietly run away from readers’ own preoccupations. A good chunk of the book’s second half, for instance, depends directly on the idea of massively popular theme parks recapturing the instant-nostalgia of “New Work”. I have no perceptible interest or affection for theme parks, and couldn’t actually be bothered to figure out why these theme parks would be popular, or actually mattered. At the same time, my interest for the characters evaporated, to a point where I didn’t care all that much about how, where and why they were arguing, sleeping together or fighting the forces of Disney. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of a novel that “doesn’t work for me”, and so you can understand why I’m left unable to muster more than a tepid opinion about the book.
Which is really too bad, because Makers is more current than much of what I’ve read this year, and I suspect that the novel’s failure to take off in my mind is more due to personal idiosyncrasies than major problems with the book itself. There’s an essay to be written about the ways Makers is an antonym to Users and how that ties into both Doctorow’s tapestry of work (including the abandoned /usr/bin/god) and current notions of civic involvement, but I really can’t be bothered right now. Disappointed, I would rather wait for Doctorow’s next novel and hope for the best again.