by Cory Doctorow
Cover Artist: Photo: Jupiterimages
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765312792
Date: 27 October 2009 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In Makers, Cory Doctorow's latest work of techno-biz-dev-punk we go behind the curtain in the open-source-tech-start-up revolution that Cory has been on the front lines of since he came on the scene, to take a roller coaster ride through the ups and downs of inventing the future one great idea at a time. Cory channels Heller's Catch 22, envisioning the world as a place where there is no permanence, only new ideas progress rapidly through their life cycle from innovation to obsolescence. The cast of characters is drawn from the authors friends and the author himself and are true to life...if a bit on the narcissistic side.
When venture capitalist Landon Kettlewell merges the aging and dressed remnants of Kodak and Duracell, he asks himself, "Why have you done this...why put two dinosaurs and stick them together? Will they mate and give birth to a new generation of less-endangered dinosaurs?"
The new dinosaur (or maybe one of those runty little rodent things) is "New Work" and it's about treating everything as a start-up, then moving on when it hits the plateau part of the life cycle.
Landon also brokers a deal to get Suzanne Church, a columnist from the San Jose Mercury newspaper to become an embedded journalist with one of his hottest teams, Perry and Lester, two guys holed up in the economic ruins of Florida building weird and wonderful things out of odd lot junk. Cyber-tickle me Elmos that can work together like a group organism. Lots of arty stuff that goes for substantial money on eBay. A kitchen gnome based on a garden gnome, but one that acts as a household information hub. All of it from 3D printers only a step ahead of the ones on the market today.
Landon teams up the lads with Tjan, a business developer who knows how to harness their creativity and actually bring products to market, and things take off.
In one of the many ideas grabbed from the headlines that weren't quite written when Cory finished Makers, Suzanne gets laid off by the paper, which is cutting back on news coverage, so she goes rouge and becomes a blogger. It's just another facet of the New Work paradigm, and she's wildly successful, a fine example of how well New Work works.
Now, it wouldn't be much of a story if that was all there was to it. As John LeCarre said, "The cat sat on the mat" is not a story. "The cat sat on the dog's mat" is a story. (John le Carré: An Interrogation , NYTimes Sept, 25, 1977). In this case there are several cats who wind up on Perry and Lester's mats.
First off, everybody seems to fall for Suzanne, who describes herself as a mid-forties gal with cellulite. Not very flattering perhaps, but one expects that she cleans up pretty well, and pretty much everyone in this book has the kind of room filling personality that makes this almost unavoidable. So, you get romantic tension between Suzanne and a number of other characters. It happens that Lester is a classic nearly obese geek...and a terrific guy. This causes Suzanne no end of grief as she tries to deal with mixed emotions.
Then there's the economy, stupid. New Work works, but like so many things it goes boom, then bust, then settles down to make something out of the good parts. When it all falls apart, Perry and Lester go back to doing what they love, making interesting things out of junk, but they stumble onto another revelation, that "rides" like the Epcot center diorama tours can be created in any unused space, and that by encouraging visitors to add to the spaces and vote on their preferences they can create a "real" analog to Web 2.0 sites.
Anyone who's read much of Cory's work knows he's got a love/hate relationship with the house of the mouse, so the emergence of Disney as the biggest cat on their mat is no surprise. What is a surprise, and a pleasant one, is that all the characters have good points and bad points, and the author has no problem showing the other side of the coin.
One of the central insights that Cory has is that we've moved from a model of planned obsolescence to one of expected obsolescence. First you have a bright idea, then you make it, enjoy a brief period of owning the product space, and then watch as imitators make it cheaper and push you out of the product space.
As Tjan, the lad's business adviser and the BizDev equivalent of Heinlein's scientist character says, "How do we compete with this? We don't. We do the next thing."
Makers is full of exposition. In fact, it's often little more than a vehicle for Cory to talk business model theory, hung on the antics of an engaging, if pretty self-centered, cast. But it's full of novel and creative ideas and it's exciting just as it is. SF is a literature of new ideas, often strung together by a human interest storyline. The characters in hard SF aren't actually there for us to get wrapped up their lives, so much as to provide us with objects we can observe the impact of the new ideas on.
The thing that makes me a bit crazy is a somewhat Ayn Randian, "Who is John Gault" theme that runs through Cory's work, and is especially evident here. The few clever people in Cory's story are all doing really well, but they're living on a combination of the discarded waste of the masses, and the collapse of whole categories of labor where distribution and automation allow some individual to do the work of many. Granted that this is how the author's actual life works, but not everybody is as self-actualized and creative as he is, and it seems unlikely that this model is sustainable if everyone has to live that way.
Which is not to say that the current model actually works, or can be sustained. The New Work paradigm may wind up being all there is, though since it's essentially an anarchist worker's paradise, I expect you'll wind up with corporate warlords instead. The fact that reading Makers forces you to examine these questions is a recommendation for the book in itself.
I strongly recommend Makers. It's biz-dev-design-punk at its best, and teens on the way to B-School should read it this summer before classes start. If it fires them up, and it should, they might as well drop out before they start, because no B- School will be able to wrap its head around the brave new world within it, at least not until the old one collapses under its own weight.