Book review: Makers, By Cory Doctorow

By Cory Doctorow
Harper Voyager, €18

Published in The Sunday Business Post on January 24, 2010, reviewed by Alex Meehan

From boom to bust, Cory Doctorow’s latest novel tells the story of what happens when an economy attempts to reinvent itself, only to find out that the fundamental building blocks on which it is constructed are unstable.

With some interesting parallels to the current global financial meltdown, Makers documents the birth, mass adoption and total collapse of a reinvented American economy.

The story is set in the near future and revolves around gonzo-inventors Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks, two computer geeks who have made a life for themselves recycling other people’s junk into unlikely yet desirable gadgets. From their base in Florida, they attract the attention of Landon Kettlewell, chief executive of the newly formed Kodacell, a company born out of a merger between Kodak and Duracell.

Landon is a key prophet of the New Work ideology, a kind of post-industrial micro financing revolution predicted to sweep the world.

Doctorow has borrowed the New Work from real world ideas published in the 1970s by the German cultural philosopher Frithjof Bergmann, who wrote that people are only really free when they have the option of doing things with their lives that they care deeply about. In Makers, Doctorow ponders what would happen if economic forces made it desirable for multinationals to change from being monolithic institutions with single consolidated balance sheets into venture capitalists, making money by bankrolling thousands of start-ups instead.

These start-ups would excel at doing new and innovative things, because the people behind them loved what they were doing, and as a result would be much more creative and effective than a larger company could be.

In the future outlined in Makers, technology has enabled a resurgence in industrial style cottage industries. Ideas are once again king, as the means of production have been democratised – three-dimensional printers, computing power and design know-how are all so cheap they’re almost free.

In part one of Makers, Perry and Lester ride the crest of the New Work wave, with their activities bankrolled by Kodacell and documented in print and on the web by technology journalist Suzanne Church.

She is so intrigued by the potential of the New Work movement that she ditches her job, moves in with Lester and Perry and blogs full time about the pair, living off the advertising she sells on her globally popular blog.

But things don’t turn out as the endlessly optimistic Kettlewell thinks they will, and part two of the story begins around a decade after the collapse of the New Work boom, some time in the 2020s. The economy has tanked, and Lester and Perry now make a living running a kind of open-source amusement park, located in one of the nation’s many abandoned Wal-marts. Using self-replicating robots, the rides and attractions in the park change on a daily basis.

As the book progresses and more time passes, a total re-imagining of the role of technology and economics is outlined, while the story follows an ongoing battle between the Disney Corporation and Perry and Lester’s new enterprise for control of the virtual theme park market.

Makers is an intriguing read, particularly at the outset, as Doctorow throws ideas at the reader thick and fast, and the early stages of the book are delightfully inventive.

Doctorow has done something interesting in fusing technology and economics into a readable and engaging science fiction novel, but the story does start to drag a little as the book progresses.

Even so, if you like your fiction witty, clever and challenging all at the same time, you will find makers a compelling experience.