In Little Brother, Cory Doctorow showed how a grassroots, technology based movement could ensure our civil liberties. With his latest novel, Makers, he asks whether a similar movement could save American capitalism from itself.
Makers is written by Cory Doctorow, that cape and goggles-wearing editor of Boing Boing, and author of such novels as Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Little Brother. This latest volume touches on many of the topics Doctorow has become famous for obsessing over: intellectual property rights and open source, the tension between individual and institution, his emotionally complicated relationship with Disney, how technology is gradually changing our culture, transhumanism, and ordinary people who make really cool shit.
The novel is set in that fifteen minutes into the future that is Doctorow's forte, at a time when Silicon Valley has begun to disintegrate more subtly than Detroit, but perhaps as thoroughly. At a press conference, Landon Kettlewell, the CEO of a newly merged Kodak/Duracell (termed "Kodacell" by a snarky tech journo), announces a bold new direction for the company: he plans to scout talented people from all over the country who make cool stuff, fund them, and find a way to quickly monetize their ideas time and time again. Many are skeptical, but business writer Suzanne Church — who once covered the Detroit scene and finds herself increasingly, if unconsciously, disillusioned with the Bay Area — is intrigued by Kodacell's new endeavor. After a few flirtatious interactions with Kettlewell (a maverick of an executive who insists that the people close to him call him by absurd nicknames like "Kettlebelly" and "Kettledrum"), Church finds herself embedded with Kodacell and flies to a depressed Florida suburb to meet Kodacell's first idea tank. There she finds Perry Gibbons and his obese sidekick Lester Banks, a pair of scavenger-artists who design elaborate mechanical art pieces for wealthy collectors: simple difference engines that spew M&Ms, crews of robotic Elmo dolls reprogrammed to drive cars. Perry and Lester are pros at repurposing technology, though they've never had an eye for the practical. They are soon joined by Tjan, a Kodacell moneyman who helps them develop products with mass appeal, rapidly get them to market, and then start the process all over again when imitators flood the market.
The first portion of Makers reads very much like a manifesto. The characters make enough pretty speeches about moral capitalism that I sometimes suspected it was being ghostwritten by an undead, philosophically reformed Ayn Rand. But the gleeful moneymaking of those early chapters isn't about the glory of the high-powered executive or developing a greed-is-good social code; it's about giving people power over their own destinies, giving people the ability to build things, to take pride in their communities (all communities — not just those located in major cities), and the notion that in order to sell things to people, you need to make sure they have the money to buy them. Thanks to Suzanne's vivid chronicles of Perry and Lester's innovations and Kodacell's early success, they all find themselves at the center of a New Work movement. Former cubicle jockeys flee their metropolises for smaller cities and suburbs and get their hands dirty — serving their neighbors and themselves instead of just serving their corporate masters — in an ephemeral golden age of American innovation.
But it quickly becomes clear that good ideas and wide-eyed idealism alone won't save America, and Makers shifts from manifesto to novel, albeit a novel still very concerned with the social problems plaguing America. The country's obesity problem takes an abrupt term with the development of the so-called "fatkins" treatments, where Russian biotechnology clinics reshape corpulent bodies as generically fit Adonises and tweak their metabolic systems to require metric tons of empty calories. As the treatments catch on, the fatkins become one of the nations' dominant cultures, with their own restaurants, dating styles, and demographic box. There is a great deal of frustration with government intrusion, especially concerning a shantytown of squatters who view their brand of community building as a new frontier. And there's similar frustration with the legal system, the need for intellectual property and formalized institutional structures, though it's coupled with the recognition that foregoing these legal protections carries dangerous consequences.
It's a dense, and always interesting reading experience, even if it has its warts. Subtlety has never been a virtue of Doctorow's novels, and Makers is no exception. The story has its villains, and even when they possess the capacity for redemption, a good deal of mustache-twirling goes on. Suzanne Church has a Dagny Taggert knack for making brilliant men fall in love with her, and though our other heroes are flawed, they seem in many ways the perfect models of idea men and executives.
The most frustrating aspect of Makers, however, may be the most honest. We see the rise and fall of various projects and innovations over the years, and Doctorow fills his world with wondrous technologies and forward-thinking people. But when things fall apart, as they periodically do, it's often because of interpersonal issues, because disagreements get in the way of big, brilliant ventures. It's not a crack at Doctorow as a writer; it's just that he's so adept at raising our spirits and making us believe in these superhuman people that when they fall prey to the ugly foibles of the real world, it's a bit of a letdown. Affection and optimism, even when a bit overblown, is a better look on him, and the most engaging portions of Makers are the ones that harness that.
Still, Makers is a book for the lovers of technology, for the gleeful optimists more than the cynics. It's for the people who love the kooky engineering projects you see on Boing Boing, for the people who believe that, as the poster says, "The future belongs to the few of us still willing to get our hands dirty." It's for the people who can't wait to own a 3D printer, and who believe that while technology has its missteps, it's going to change our lives in wonderful and unexpected ways. It's for the people who hate Disney's corporate tactics, but still get a thrill at the idea of visiting the Magic Kingdom; for the people who believe that, even if they can't change the world, they can at least improve their little corner of it. It's for the people who think that, while the future may not be all jetpacks and hover cars and all the world's people people singing Kumbaya, we as individuals have the power to make it awesome in its own right.
Makers is currently out in hardcover, but you can read the serialized novel for free on Tor.com.