1/04/2011. Contributed by Izzy Kaminski
pub: TOR/Forge. 475 page small hardback. Price: $17.99 (US), $19.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2216-6.
check out website: www.tor-forge.com and www.sfwa.org/members/lerner
‘For The Win’ is set in the near future where on-line games are a massive part of society. So big, in fact, that they make up eight of the world’s largest twenty economies. In this world, games are the new reality with real jobs, a real economy feeding into the real world and real social relations and they are an excellent arena for Cory Doctorow to explore complex economic ideas without sounding like a dry school textbook in this young adult novel.
As well as being a source of pleasure, on-line games are a forum for real economic exploitation, with legions of gold farmers in the Third World paid to make raise money in-game which sold for real-world cash to First World players. The gaming companies in turn hire out players to hunt out and kill gold farmer avatars. Doctorow understands gamer culture (for example, he imagines a piece of software that translates gamer-speak instantly into any language) and he shows how seductive this sort of work could be for young people who start by playing games for fun. But he also explicitly equates labour exploitation with exploitation in any other part of life.
If it sounds at all similar, that’s because it grew out of one of Doctorow’s short stories, ‘Anda’s Game’, about a British girl who finds out that Asian children are being paid to make cash through on-line games. I like the way Doctorow shows his working about his own writing process and you can see how he has developed these ideas into a full novel.
Doctorow genuinely believes the Internet can be a source of liberation in the right hands. For a teenage girl such as Mala, who lives in an Indian slum, it is a potential tool of freedom and equality as well as oppression. When she is approached by a mysterious man to kill other players in the game for cash, she rises to become ‘General Robotwallah’, gaining respect and fear from her peers and improving her family’s living conditions. Only when she hears from a mysterious stranger called Big Sister Nor does she begin to question the job she is performing.
Big Sister Nor heads up a group of online workers around the world who have organised into the IWWWW (International Workers of the World Wide Web or the Webblies), a name explicitly taken from the 1920s and 30s Wobblies movement, which tried to establish a truly international and inclusive workers’ movement. ‘For The Win’ is critical of the narrow-minded focus of traditional unionism, claiming that in a truly global world economy can only work if workers of all stripes in all parts of the world work together and the Internet is an effective way of achieving this goal.
An occasional criticism of Doctorow’s fiction in that his stories are shells for his political and social messages. This preachiness does creep into ‘For The Win’, which contains explanatory chapters that hardly advance the plot, but I think Doctorow gets away with it because these sections are so well written and explain difficult issues, particularly complex macroeconomic concepts, clearly and succinctly. He uses analogies that resonate with younger readers and that can teach older readers a thing or two as well.
He also gets away with it because ‘For The Win’s characters are strong and engaging. So we meet Leonard, an American teenager obsessed with Chinese culture who smuggles himself into China to help the Webbly cause; Jie, who single-handedly runs a pirate radio station politicising millions of factory workers while running from the law; and the brilliant and stubborn Mala.
They are ordinary children and young adults caught up in extraordinary events, who survive because of their intelligence and courage as well as the luck of being in the right place at the right time. They are flawed but likeable, capable of cruelty as well as kindness and can perform acts of both great brutality and great bravery.
The ending is slightly deflatory with the Webblies striking up a deal with games manufacturers rather than overturning the whole system. But the point is strongly made that political change can also be achieved in little steps and minor victories.
As befits Doctorow’s advocacy of open culture, ‘For The Win’ can be downloaded for free on-line or bought as a book. There’s also an interesting scheme where people can donate a copy to their local library or school, but it’s definitely a book well worth shelling out for in the real world.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA