Taking Disney for a ride
With the blooms of Spring all around, the Beamers sat down (in slightly crowded conditions) to wander through the Magic Kingdom of Cory Doctorow’s Makers, a near-future tale of junkyard inventors who not only cobble together Elmo-driven automobiles but also an entire New Work economy. The price of admission, though, involves quite a bit of personal pain and ethical angst.
Get One Free!
Like all of his previous novels, Makers is available as a free download from Doctorow’s web site and the opening chapters (Book 1) were published on Salon as he was writing them. Much as his characters do, Doctorow is dedicated to open source and Creative Commons licensing, trying to make information as free as possible, within some economic limits. And therein lies the tension in the tale.
Makers follows two individuals (the canonical number of garage innovators, cf. Jobs and Wozniak), Perry and Lester, who enjoy hacking through the detritus of a Florida junkyard and creating new and bizarre products out of the high-tech trash (toaster-robots fashioned out of sea shells, cars controlled by networked Elmo dolls). Collectors pay high prices for their pieces, but venture capitalists like Langdon Kettlewell are willing to bankroll the pair for full production lines of items. The novel tracks how Perry and Lester succeed, then survive the crash of this small-workshop, New Work economy, and ultimately have to face the power of The Mouse That Roars. Given how Disney as a corporation has nearly single-handedly warped American copyright laws, it seems an apt villain for the book. Except, not quite.
To Each, According to His Legal Eagles
The issue of copyright (or, more broadly, intellectual property, or IP, rights) got our first discussion going, as we argued both for the free movement of ideas and for the proper compensation for creators in an age in which reproduction of ideas and designs was easier and easier. While none of us was in favor of the kind of heavy-handed control sought by bio-tech patent holders, we also reacted badly to the concept of “patent trolls” (third-party purchasers of patents solely for purposes of extorting payment via threat of filing patent infringement lawsuits).
However, as a matter for fiction, we divided again, with some of us enjoying the more realistic look at how sf inventors would fare in a world tied up with IP lawsuits, while others found it hard to slog through the combination of techno-babble and lawyer-speak. And where to place Makers on the political spectrum (liberal? libertarian?) flummoxed us, as well. Kathy thought that the optimistic tone of the book, set in a world that, though post-collapse, was still filled with promise, argued for Doctorow being on the liberal side, while I noted that it being nominated for a Prometheus Award gave it the libertarian stamp of approval (which is surprising considering its generally appreciative view of Disney, both corporation and Walt the man).
Making the issue harder to resolve was the lack of any central government in the book, save on the lower levels and then only in the form of Broward County police who arrive to harass the inventors and their shantytown neighbors. Kevin offered that the book was set in the typical “post-collapse” near future, where central authorities, save those of corporate structures, had faded away. And yet, the TSA still patrols the airports, offering cavity searches free of charge to travelers who look at them funny.
It’s a Small World, After All
The scale of the book, though it involves coast-to-coast travel and St. Petersburgs in both Florida and Russia, is rather intimate, focussing mainly on Perry, Lester, and their relationships. Kathy, as one of the Beamers who finished the book, was able to hook onto the dynamics of Perry and Lester’s friendship, with its various ups and downs, and ride it through to the conclusion. Merrie, on the other hand, thought that the changes that the characters underwent were a bit too severe and not well-established in their personalities, making it harder for her to accept both the arguments and the reconciliations that the characters experience.
For me, I did applaud the author’s decisions (and bravery) to show his characters making mistakes, learning better, and changing their ways, particularly over questions which had no simple right or wrong answers. Still, the dynamics of the relationships may have been easier to follow if the jumps in time from section to section were more clearly shown. Nick, for example, was confused as to how a 4-year-old was organizing a babysitting service, a task which would not be so difficult to believe once the intervening chronological jump (somewhere from 5 to 10 years, we estimated) was explained.
The Future Will Be in Black or White
Doctorow can be a bit extreme with his portrayals, positive and negative. Donna found it unnecessary to make the nasty tech blogger, Rat-Toothed Freddy, whose comeuppance triggers Perry’s compromise with Disney, into a caricature of an Internet troll, suffering from social and physical deformities as well as ethical lapses. On the flip side, Freddy’s rival and Lester’s love interest, Suzanne, repeatedly meets with gushing fans throughout the book as we are regularly reminded how the whole New Work movement would have been impossible without her inspirational reporting. But whatever other changes may occur in social and economic terms in the near future, lawyers will still be the go-to villains, whether they work for The Mouse or for the small workshop gadgeteers.
The shantytown community, too, divided us as to whether it could come together as described and create itself out of old junk and new high-tech materials. Liz questioned if any of us would take up residence in a four-story cardboard building in a Florida where superstorms can blow across at a moment’s notice. The shantytown led us into a discussion on the idea of emergent properties versus central planning. (The Invisible Hand was waving hard but was never called upon, for some reason.)
Reply Hazy, Try Again
The book, in some ways, suffered from a similar problem, with a plethora of ideas and exciting concepts that popped up, seemingly randomly, and struggled to be recognized before the tide of the plot washed them away. Some of us, like Fran, were disappointed with this “emergent” style of writing. Donna found it hard to believe in the evolving Story allegedly seen by fans of the dynamically created “ride” that Perry masterminded, when we never get much in the way of a description of it or of its daily changes. Even those who favored the book tended to lean harder on the character interactions than on the idea creation. Unlike free assemblages like perfect gases or perfect markets, books do tend to be written by not-quite-invisible hands.
In the end, we split on Makers, half for it, half against. There was science, and there was fiction. But for some of us, the two did not meet and blend, unlike the new-tech sardines-and-chocolate food in the book. For the rest, though, the proper molecular gastronomic “additive” did take hold and rendered us a treat. Well, there is no disputing matters of taste, as the old saying goes. But it still is a lot of fun to discuss them, even if it sometimes requires apologies to another book group for having so much (loud) fun.