Thursday, 2 September 2010

Cory Doctorow: Makers

Yeah, yeah, money’s broken, everyone’s poor and depressed, no one knows when it’s going to get better, and if I see one more weather metaphor for the economy I’m going to slap someone with a thesaurus. There is a recession. It’s getting old.

That’s why it’s interesting to start thinking about what happens next, to read a few wild theories about new shapes that wealth might take, about what money will be doing once this century pulls itself together. Cory Doctorow’s Makers begins with the tale of New Work, a New Deal-style economic transformation that sees America embracing a high-tech craft culture, giving garage-savants, hobby inventors and techy artists access to the mass infrastructure and abundance of waste material left behind, unused, in the wreckage of advanced consumer capitalism.

At the heart of this rejuvenation are Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks, buddies who like nothing better than mucking around in an abandoned shopping centre, building crazy gadgets and toys to sell on the internet. When they’re picked up by Landon Kettlewell, a business investor with deep pockets and a madcap plan, the journalist Suzanne Church attaches herself to the team and soon finds herself the semi-official chronicler of New Work.

The exuberant first part of the novel watches New Work inflate itself to gargantuan proportions. Then the bubble does what bubbles do, and the novel moves on. Years later, with New Work a fondly remembered ruin, Perry and Lester are still ensconced in their mall, now running a community-constructed nostalgia ride. Now a bit of plot appears: a villainous competitive intelligence type from Disney is out to sabotage them, mainly out of jealousy caused by the gradual fading of Disneyworld.

Apparently the book was originally called Themepunks, and I do wonder if the New Work sections were tacked on once the economy went to pieces. Most of the rest of the book is made up of the conflict between Perry and Lester and Disney, and their gradual discovery that being a corporate twonk is bad, and having a laugh building stuff with the people, for the people, is just, like, awesome.

In fairness, the plot does a good job avoiding cliches: several times I was becoming irritated by the direciton I thought the book was about to take, but it then veered off on another route. Makers also offers an original, convincing near future, and the gadgets are really fun and clever: you can just about see most of them working, if not being quite the roaring successes they become in the book. It feels modern, filled with brands and fledgling inventions you might have read about on the gimmick pages of newspaper supplements.

It’s fun reading about the gadgets, but as a complete novel Makers drags. Too many segments, characters and plot arcs are introduced too late, with the best example being a goth kid who insists on being called Death Waits. He’s actually quite a pleasant character, a bit geeky, obsessive and pathetic, yet likeably enthusiastic. And yes, his name is a subject of ridicule, don’t worry. The problem isn’t him, but how he appears as a minor character, becomes a major one, then vanishes. Just as I started to care about him, he faded out, as if Doctorow couldn’t decide what to do with him. The same goes for a few others, such as Tjan, the business manager, and Eve, Kettlewell’s wife. Doctorow sets up interesting conflicts and situations but doesn’t play them out.

This is a pity, since despite touting itself as a near-future sci-fi novel, Makers is quite character-based. It deserves credit for not turning into a silly thriller filled with fighting and futuristic weapons. It shows us real people in an almost-real setting, struggling in the same ways people do in present-day novels. And they’re pleasant, interesting people, too. The four main players have convincing friendships and interests, and they go through such anguish that I couldn’t help feeling for them.

‘Couldn’t help’, though – see that? This is where I bring up the thing that killed the book for me. Worse than the wonky structuring is the writing. The prose is spectacularly careless, written as if dictated by a kid to some of his friends. It’s casual and vague, filled with descriptions like ‘he was really built’, and:
‘Perry nodded and cracked another beer. The cool air was weirding him out.’
I suppose this colloquial delivery saves time, and if Makers had been written more elaborately an already overlong novel would have stretched even further. But it’s not just the shorthand description that irritates me: it’s the lack of imagination in the writing. One metaphor, which was pretty tired to begin with, is even used twice on the same page (‘spend money like water’, p484 of the UK paperback, if you care). Slang which is fine in the characters’ mouths sounds lazy when it’s used in the narrative, and there were quite a few acronyms I had to look up (CHUD, TSA). These aren’t major structural flaws, just minor points that could easily have been cleared up by a bit more concentration on the prose.

Then there’s the way characters act. Again, it’s as if it’s shorthand for how you expect people to act – a slightly childish repetition of actions that are supposed to illustrate certain characteristics. So when someone tells a joke (which happens a lot, although few of them are very funny) everyone laughs uproariously, usually clutching their sides; and when someone is happy they do a little dance. This isn’t characterisation – say, a person with a particular tendency to display their emotions in an extravagant fashion – but a tendency to make everyone act this way. I gather that Doctorow’s previous book (Little Brother) was a young adult piece. Makers could be too, if it weren’t for the occasional extreme sex (weirdly pornographic) and violence (hideous, although in a way this is admirable – it doesn’t make physical damage into a temporary, mild inconvenience – injuries are painful and have long-term consequences. There is no action-hero invincibility here).

So a flawed, sometimes annoying, but nonetheless interesting novel. Despite its ponderous length and poor prose I read it quickly, and if you’d asked me during the first half I’d have said I was enjoying it a lot. It almost redeems itself with its epilogue, but otherwise I found my attention wandering by the end. However, even then I was interested in what Doctorow had to say with his setting, and, slightly surprisingly, I cared about the main characters. Like a lot of slightly ropey science fiction, Makers feels less like a bad novel and more like a missed opportunity.

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