My first impression of Cory Doctorow’s novel Makers (2009), as I read its early pages, was that he’d written Boing Boing: The Novel: a near-future science fiction tale filled with passion for weird, interesting, fun stuff of a futuristic bent. But for all that its physical world feels like it’s modeled on the internet, it quickly becomes clear that there’s much more to Makers than sheer, geeky inventiveness.
Makers kicks off when two dinosaur corporations — Kodak and Duracell — merge under the leadership of a visionary businessman named Landon Kettlewell. Rather than continue the slowly dying business of making film and batteries, the rebranded “Kodacell” goes in an excitingly weird new direction: leveraging its vast corporate resources and infrastructure toward the financing of small teams of intelligent, creative people to produce, well, whatever they want to produce. Kettlewell entices a sharp tech industry reporter, Suzanne Church, to get in on the ground floor of this high-concept gamble, sending her to cover the efforts of Kodacell’s flagship creative team, Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks, who’ve set up shop in a Hollywood, Florida ghost mall. It’s an outpost of inventive tinkering in the commercial ruins of old-school, decaying capitalism, and exciting things soon start happening: Suzanne’s exhaustive, persuasive coverage helps sell the charismatic duo’s ingenious inventions — along with the Kodacell business model — to the world, leading to a movement called “New Work,” and an unexpected economic surge.
Things don’t stay rosy forever, though, as this found family — which grows and morphs and changes throughout, as relationships evolve under new stresses and strains — navigates the treacherously shifting world of Doctorow’s future. It’s a future where biotech conquers obesity, creating a bizarre new caste of pleasure-wallowing “fatkins;” where endlessly inventive reality hackers turn the detritus of American “super-abundance” into fascinating kludges of recycled, useful knick-knackery; where down-and-out homeless drifters spin together magical shantytowns; and where new fabbing technologies transform the very nature of how people live. It is, in other words, highly inventive, totally futurismic fiction, real wheelhouse stuff for me.
I can’t say I enjoyed every minute of this novel; after the initial, thrilling rush of the rise of New Work in the early stages, the novel snagged for me later when it shifted focus to Perry and Lester’s near-accidental creation of a network of nostalgic, New Work-related rides in abandoned superstores. Here, Doctorow’s unabashed enthusiasm for theme parks and Disney seemed to get the better of him, for a while. But as the battle between Perry and Lester’s network and a villainous Disney executive continued, the novel gradually won me back, and not just with its eyeball kicks and nifty futurismic gadgetry. Doctorow also ventures into areas most science fiction ignores — the economy, the business world, law, and journalism, to name a few. He examines these broad topics with the same inventive eye most SF writers reserve mainly for science and tech, and it makes the scenario all the richer. His enthusiasm for the material can sometimes be exhausting, and I’m not always sure I’m buying what he’s selling. Despite well-drawn conflict, the odd disaster, and some truly deplorable villains, there’s an underlying optimism to the mindset of this fictional world that I sometimes find hard to swallow. (Curse my jaded eye!) But I have to admire the boundless, brainstormy energy of it all. The next question is always asked, sometimes even before the previous one has been answered, and that feels like life to me — there’s something really authentic there.
Another thing I loved about Makers was its fearlessness regarding change. For all that they’re supposed to be forward-looking and engaged by the future, science fiction people don’t always seem that interested in or comfortable with change. Doctorow does not have that problem. Makers is all about change, the inevitability of it, and the need for people to learn to adapt to it. The characters here — all of them strongly drawn and distinctive, I might add — confront change constantly, facing tough decisions that often pit them against their own pasts and predispositions. This is SF that challenges people to think about how systems work, and how to balance the need for progress against the draw of nostalgia, and how to look at old ways, current ways, and new ways, and when to change track. This stuff is important, and I wish SF did more of it.
On the whole, then, a pretty damn good SF novel. For me it started out like gangbusters, lost focus and slowed down, sped back up, changed gears and directions a bunch of times, and ended with a profound and effective final note that brought the whole, grand mess of it together. Really good stuff.