Friday, October 01, 2010

Made Men

Let me get this off my chest first: No, I have no idea whether Cory Doctorow and E. L. Doctorow are related.  As I'm writing this, I have no Internet connection, and won't remember to look it up before I post.


I've been vaguely aware of Cory Doctorow for years now, while not being totally sure of exactly what he does.  Turns out that's because he does a bit of everything: he's a rather famous blogger, and also a novelist, and all-around tech muse.  I know him best from an awesome cameo he made on XKCD a while back.

I stumbled across "Makers" in the library one day and grabbed it.  I don't think it's his best-known book, though I don't know what is.  I don't think he does series, so it's probably fine to tackle them in any order.

That said, I get the feeling that his books are probably most enjoyable early on.  Makers is a little bit like Halting State in that it's a sci-fi book that's set only a few years in the future.  It was written in... 2008, I think? - and starts sometime during this decade.  The whole course of the book spans several decades, and it's pretty self-consciously proud that nearly all of the raw technology in the book exists today.  The Makers aren't creating new substances; they're arranging existing substances in ways that people haven't thought of before.


Makers starts out as a huge love letter to the Maker movement, as exemplified in Make Magazine and the Maker Faire.  I think they're most popular here in the Bay Area, but have a national presence.  Makers construct physical, tech-savvy do-it-yourself projects, which tend to be fun or quirky, occasionally filling a useful niche.  The physical products of makers look like something from a science fair, Jerry Lewis movie, or mad scientist's lab.  The ethos and spirit of the movement, though, draws pretty directly from the open source software movement.  Makers aren't proprietary or out to make a buck; they build on what others have done, inspire one another, publish all their designs, and continually improve on them.

The Makers in this book are Perry and Lester, a classical geek duo.  Perry is more charismatic and social; Lester is brilliant, huge, and more shy.  Or at least they start that way.  This is a big book, that spans many years and events, and their personalities also shift as they grow older.

Although Perry and Lester are the main characters, we don't meet them for a while.  The book starts out with Suzanne, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News.  Let me stop here and say that I'm just amazed at how well Doctorow captures everything about the Bay Area: he totally nails everything, from our media to our geography to the culture to the companies to the food to the people.  He doesn't really flog it, but his easy mastery of the topic is impressive: he'll casually describe Suzanne's drive up 280, and I'll think, "I KNOW that spot he's talking about!", and he'll describe her house, and I'll think, "I've SEEN houses like hers!," and he'll talk about how she got the house, and I'll think, "Wow, everyone I know who has a house got theirs the same way!"

It's all so good that I got a little sad when the action shifted to Florida, where Lester and Perry are based.  Doctorow is probably just as accurate with that region as he is with the Bay Area, but I don't know it as well, so I can't appreciate it as much; plus, strip malls and shantytowns don't do much for me, whether they're accurately rendered or not.

Like I said before, the book is huge.  It's divided into three sections, but the second and third are rather contiguous.  The first part is the most fun: it's a straight-out, full-on optimistic geek-fest, all about excited people building cool stuff.  Doctorow has some amazing stuff in here, as he trots out nifty inventions that are totally possible today.  Some of these are incredibly useful; one of the best ideas is a two-compartment dishwasher, so you can load dirty dishes in one side before unloading the clean dishes in the other.  (At my office, this would save me all kinds of distress.)  There's also the universal organizer: tag everything with RFID, and place everything in receptacles.  Then, whenever you need ANYTHING, just say its name, and the receptacle glows.

Other inventions are useless and fun.  The most vivid is the Boogie Woogie Elmo Mobile.  This takes a collection of cast-off animatronic Elmo dolls, and then networks them: not via wifi or bluetooth, but via voice.  The Elmo dolls call out to each other, watch what they are doing, and then work together to drive a golf cart around.  Doctorow describes this so well that you can hardly keep from laughing.  Other awesome inventions include analog computers, such as one that accepts barbie doll heads, performs mathematical operations, and then dispenses the answer as a quantity of brown M&Ms.

Ooh, speaking of M&Ms... one of the most refreshing aspects of this book is how confidently Doctorow uses trademarks and company names.  Very few authors have the guts to do this.  Part of it may be out of a fear of litigation, but it's also considered very bad form: when I took a fiction writing class back in college, my professor only had two rules for us: don't use weather to establish a mood, and don't include any brand names.  Well, here, it totally works.  This starts out as a book about making stuff, but it's largely about companies and products and competition, and especially since it's set in the near-future, it wouldn't be at all believable if it skimped out on the brands.

And so we have them.  Not just named, but also judged.  In the first few pages, we learn that Kodak and Duracell have been hostilely taken over, due to their slumping stock price and inability to innovate.  Yahoo! is dismissed near the end of the book as a forgotten company.  And, starting in the second section of the book, Disney emerges as the primary villain.  This is delicious - Disney is infamous among copyright-reform folks for their single-handed chokehold on intellectual property laws in the United States.  Disney is a bit different here - the company has been taken over and then split apart into independent corporations, including Disney Products and Disney Parks. 

The second section of the book opens after the Maker movement (described here as New Work, which I kept mis-reading as New York) falls apart.  I never totally got the reason why - the money dries up, which is fine, but people were making stuff before they got any money, and it seems weird that they would stop.  I get the impression that people got fed up with the stuff people were creating, which, again, seems weird... it reminds me of the old saw about the Patent Office head declaring that all useful inventions had already been created.

The second and third sections of the book follow a more conventional narrative drive.  There wasn't really a villain in the first part, although there was some conflict and some unpleasant personalities.  The latter part of the book starts in a state of subdued depression: the economy's in a funk, people aren't inventing stuff, etc.   It largely chronicles Lester and Perry's resurgence, building on the ashes of the New Work movement, and in the process creating The Ride, a sort of physical wiki.  The Ride becomes a cultural phenomenon, which drives certain elements at Disney crazy, and hence is the conflict born.

This part of the book also widens the scope of characters a lot.  The first section was almost all Suzanne; when we see Lester and Perry, it's usually through her eyes.  Here, we get more people in their own voices: Lester and Perry, and also Sammy (a ladder-climbing Disney executive), Death Waits (a goth kid who is fired from Disney Parks and becomes a fervent believer in The Ride), Suzanne again (now remade as a European sophisticate), and more.  I think my favorite here was Kettlewell, the Silicon Valley millionaire who got New Work rolling in the first part of the book.  Kettlewell was always a fun, exuberant presence, but you never really got a feel for what made him tick.  Now, you can follow things from his perspective, and his character really deepens as a result.

It's harder to like the second part of the book, but I think that's part of the point.  There are very strong analogies with the dot-com boom and bust here: the huge sense of optimism and exuberance, followed by the crushing defeat and malaise, followed by tentative steps at rebuilding and, eventually, surpassing what came before.  I don't think that Makers is an analogy of the dot-com boom; rather, Doctorow sees it as part of the natural order of business and society.  We shoot for the stars, we get shot down, we rebuild and try something else, something better.


So, now that that's done, all I need to do is find myself an E. L. Doctorow book and start reading that.  Somehow I doubt I'll find as many robots and 3D Printers in there, but it should still be a good time.

No comments:

Post a Comment