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Makers by Cory Doctorow

01/01/2011. Contributed by Tomas L. Martin

Buy Makers in the USA - or Buy Makers in the UK

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pub: TOR/Forge. 416 page hardback. Price: $24.99 (US), $31.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-1279-2).

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Cory Doctorow’s young adult novel, ‘Little Brother’, which was a ‘1984’ for the Internet generation, was one of my favourite books of 2008 and got onto the Hugo ballot for best novel as well as winning the Prometheus, White Pine and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards in 2009. His capturing of the zeitgeist of the blogs, hackers and gamers along with a compelling narrative of Homeland Security gone mad with power (something that looks rather prescient in the advent of backscattering X-ray scanners and enhanced pat-downs) produced a classic tale of rebellion against oppression.

‘Makers’, Doctorow’s next novel, is aimed for a more adult audience but of the same web-savvy nature. The author’s experience blogging about new developments in technology, science, art and culture for the influential website ‘Boing Boing’ imbues his fiction with an infectious cornucopia of ideas and gadgets inspired by real life, from on-line comicbooks and freedom-loving hackers to custom-made sculptures using 3D printers and Rube Goldberg machines.

This novel takes that gung-ho creativity Doctorow sees during his travels across the Internet and translates into a story of a new industrial revolution. When Kodak and Duracell go bankrupt, merge and are bought out by a venture capitalist, he fires everyone and uses the equipment and capital remaining to set up thousands of tiny ‘maker’ establishments, where small groups of inventors and entrepreneurs try out new ideas in a much faster and more efficient way to that found in a big company’s R&D department. By keeping them small and able to adapt to changing conditions quickly, the hope is that many new great inventions can come to market much more quickly.

The main thrust of the novel follows three characters. Perry and Lester are two of the new class of inventors, creating seashell robots that make toast and networked groups of Elmo dolls that can drive a car, among many other quirky things. Suzanne is the journalist that documents their transformation of the economy with ‘New Work’.

Of course, like all economic revolutions, New Work becomes a massive bubble and collapses spectacularly, at which point Perry and Lester start making custom-built, constantly evolving theme parks in abandoned supermarkets that get them into a corporate espionage battle with Disney. We follow the trio as this bizarre world evolves over a number of years, complete with custom body hacks to slim fat people and custom-made programmable prosthetics.

There were many moments of ‘Makers’ that I enjoyed very much and the characters are likeable and compelling. Certain sections, particularly the early development of New Work and the sabotaging of the new fairgrounds by a Disney executive are brilliantly written and audaciously inventive. Doctorow has a knack for finding brilliant little inventions to light up a descriptive passage, ideas that would occupy other writers for entire stories. He captures the hacker-inventor-blogger zeitgeist very well and draws an interesting picture of the good and bad that might result from that ethos taking over.

Although there’s much to enjoy in this novel, it’s also a frustrating read. The plotline is nowhere near as honed and polished as ‘Little Brother’, which had a focused plot that yielded an incredibly satisfying journey from beginning to end. ‘Makers’ by comparison feels a little muddled and it’s tricky to work exactly what the main story is, let alone what it’s trying to say. We are taken on a number of side-plots and new ventures, skip large amounts of time and flit between the uncertain lives of the main characters, as if the author is struggling to find a key plotline to hang all this cool stuff on.

Cory Doctorow is one of my favourite writers and one that I feel ‘gets’ the future as it might be better than most people out there. But he is also someone that likes to write about cool stuff and sometimes I feel this gets in the way of the more mundane acts of storytelling needed for a great novel. Sometimes it all comes together to create a dynamic, quirky and compelling book, other times it produces something intriguing and interesting, but less essential.

This is one of the latter. ‘Makers’ is a worthy read and presents an interesting narrative of what might happen when we let our creative spirits loose on the 21st Century. Lester and Suzanne in particular are interesting characters and there are many parts of the novel that will lift the imagination but, overall, the novel is a little too piecemeal to be a must-read.

Tomas L. Martin

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