Tor, 2010, 475 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-2216-6
Trying to summarize Cory Doctorow’s latest novel For the Win in a few words is an exercise in frustration, because with every “didactic” comes along a “fascinating”. It’s a logical extension to Doctorow’s bibliography so far… except that it sometimes appears to flip over the libertarian ideology of Makers. It’s perhaps Doctorow’s least pleasant reading experience so far… except that when it stops telling a story, it can be really good.
For the Win is Doctorow’s second novel for the Young Adult market, and like Little Brother it’s using that readership to indulge in some blatant speech-making. It can’t help but try to explain how the world works, and those interludes are often far more interesting than the plotting surrounding them.
Briefly summarized, For the Win is about online multiplayer games and the strange economic phenomenon surrounding them. The uninitiated may find this a trivial subject for discussion, but there’s a lot more under the surface that it may appear at first. Consider that the target audience for those games are often first-world gamers with more money than time. Combine that with gaming mechanics that are designed to keep players coming back to “grind” their way up in search of infrequent payoffs and you already have the raw elements for global exploitation, via the use of third-world workers (often children) who have a lot more time than money… and none of the protections afforded to employees in developed countries. Could it be time to unionize? Mix well, and you’ve got the elements of Doctorow’s uniquely contemporary thriller.
Does it work? In many ways, For the Win is so admirable that it doesn’t really matter if it does. Take, for instance, that none of the main teenage characters in the novel are purely American –the only one who hails from California is such a Sinophile that he adopts a Chinese name throughout. The rest of the characters are largely from developing countries, lending a pleasantly globalized feeling to the entire novel. Not that it could have been otherwise, given the networked nature of its plot devices and the globetrotting scope of the narrative. For the Win inhabits the world of the present, not some fading refraction of yesterday’s futures.
It gets even better once Doctorow starts making links between the nature of gaming, the illusion of modern economic derivatives, the inadvertent exploitation of third-world teens by clueless first-world gamers, and the opportunities that well-connected youth have in bettering their lot in life. Politically, I couldn’t help but be struck by the way For the Win espouses a leftish drive for unionization and tries really hard to make it fit with the increasingly swim-or-sink nature of Doctorow’s latest Makers. There may not necessarily be a conflict once you can reconcile information-network libertarianism with worker’s right regulation, but it amounts to a complex multi-book political exploration for Doctorow, one that recalls (gasp) Heinlein’s ability to argue several points of views in successive novels –and one that also follows in Heinlein’s didactic footsteps.
Snappy exposition aside, For the Win‘s highlights also includes a number of showcase sequences that stick in mind not for their narrative content, but for their geek wish-fulfillment power. For instance, Doctorow lavishly imagines what it would be like to engineer your own transpacific trip via a shipping container custom-modified to act as a long-haul dwelling… complete with high-speed Internet access. It’s the kind of bravura sequence that doesn’t really need a story, which is just as well given the lessened interest that much of the book’s plot can hold for some readers. For the Win is full of fascinating bits, but the structure holding them together is more interesting for what it allows than the way it bolts it all together.
But does it matter? Doctorow’s fans are unlikely to be put off given how closely For the Win follows on the footsteps of his previous works. Reviewers are unlikely to give the novel less than good notices for everything it does right, even though much of the story itself may lack narrative excitement. Meanwhile, critics will jump on it and delight at whatever meaning they can tease from its chapters and links with other up-to-the-moment fiction like William Gibson’s Zero History. Oh, and teenagers will love it. Given all of those wins, why hold on to old-fashioned narrative values?