By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 8, 2015
Suzanne Church is a popular 40-something business columnist for the San Jose Mercury News when she gets her big break. It begins when she questions Landon Kettlewell, the CEO of Kodacell — the newly merged companies of Kodak and Duracell — at a press conference describing his new corporate fiefdom. Late that evening, the shrewd executive impulsively (and rather improbably) e-mails Church with an invitation to “embed” with one of his company’s free-wheeling entrepreneurial teams. The reporter’s decision to accept the invitation changes the lives of countless thousands of people, especially those of Church, Kettlewell and the two men she is soon living with and reporting on nearly every waking hour.
With this, Canadian-born author and blogger Cory Doctorow sets in motion the plot of Makers, his 2009 science fiction novel about the economy of a near-future United States. The novel is competently written but uneven: Doctorow’s scenario for how embedded journalism will work in the near future strikes me as rather unlikely, and a significant amount of dialogue comes off as pretty didactic — a lecture, rather than a conversation.
Take this passage about three-quarters of the way into the book, in which Church talks to the two protagonists about why a certain other journalist has it in for them:
Suzanne sighed. “Well, at first I think it was that I liked you, and that you were trying to do something consistent with what he thought everyone should be doing. After all, if anyone were to follow his exhortations, they’d have to be dumb enough to be taking him seriously, and for that they deserve all possible disapprobation.
“These days, though, he hates you for two reason. The first is that you failed, which means that you’ve got to have some kind of moral deficiency. The second is that we keep pulling his pants down in public, which makes him even angrier, since pulling down people’s pants is his job.
“I know it’s armchair psychology, but I think that Freddy just doesn’t like himself very much. At the end of the day, people who are secure and happy don’t act like this.”
Perry’s scowl deepened. “I’d like to kick him in the fucking balls,” he said. “Why can’t he just let us be? We’ve got enough frigging problems.”
Perry is Perry Gibbons, a brilliant, genial and handsome 23-year-old engineer at the time that Makers begins. His partner in invention is Lester Banks, a similarly brilliant and genial (but grossly obese) engineer who’s slightly older than Gibbons.
When their talents combine with the acumen and financing of Kettlewell and another business executive, Tjan Lee Tang, Gibbons and Banks create several wildly successful revolutionary ventures; some of these are related to one another, while others are wholly independent. Two of the endeavors launch social and economic movements, inspiring a fervor among followers that’s akin to religious ardor.
The fact that Church, who soon launches an immensely popular blog, is chronicling their work nearly round the clock amplifies the reach of the men’s early collaborations. But their creations remain popular even after Church departs to cover stories in Russia and the “new work” movement that they helped invent stumbles badly.
Banks and Gibbons take center stage in the narrative at the beginning of part two, which flips the power dynamic of the opening section. Working apart from Kodacell, the men have created a hybrid amusement-park ride and interactive museum, a sort of self-contained World’s Fair exposition that is reshaped daily by the votes of visitors. The venture proves to be exceptionally successful, spawning its own local economic ecosystem. Other people around the nation — and, in time, the world — seek to open their own versions of what is simply called “the ride.” Gibbons and Banks reunite with Kettlewell and Tang, but this time the engineers are working with the executives, rather than for them.
The inventors’ commitment to open-source ethics is in keeping with the beliefs they espoused and practiced as Kodacell employees. But Banks and Gibbons don’t have any corporate backing this time around, and they do have a powerful enemy. The antagonist is an ambitious Disney executive named Sammy Page, who will go to nearly any lengths to sabotage the ride if it advances his own career prospects.
Doctorow, who helped establish the eclectic and very popular 27-year-old blog boingboing.net, has a creative mind. His vision of the impact that the open-source movement can have in tandem with easy access to three-dimensional printers is fascinating. His engineers also come up with all manner of clever gadgets, including a radio frequency identification– (or RFID-) based system that enables a person to locate any properly tagged possession in her home in the time it takes to type a few characters into a computer or smartphone.
The kitchen-helper robots that Banks and Gibbons animate using discarded mass-produced mechanical Elmo dolls are intriguing, if a bit creepy, as are the somewhat baffling mechanical computing devices that Gibbons becomes increasingly obsessed with building. Doctorow also depicts Russia as a vibrant breeding ground for wild biological engineering programs that are illegal in the United States, one of which has results that put even the most vigorous diet and exercise regime to shame.
Unfortunately, the people in Doctorow’s book are much less vivid and engaging than the inventions that he depicts. Rather improbably, Church becomes a sort of combination mother figure, muse and love interest to both of the engineers as well as to Kettlewell. When he shows Church working as a reporter, Doctorow seems to be writing about his platonic ideal of a journalist, rather than a living, breathing, fallible human being.
The character of Banks amounts to little more than a friendly engineer who has a huge crush on Church (even bigger than Gibbons’s and Kettlewell’s). Doctorow writes Kettlewell as a sort of archetypal CEO; he comes off more as a plot device than a person. Page seems slightly more of a three-dimensional character than does Kettlewell; Tang, slightly less so.
The most interesting individual in Makers is Gibbons, who develops into a tragic figure in something very close to the classical sense of the phrase. The idealistic young engineer is reluctant to make the real-world compromises that business and government leaders make almost every day; almost no matter which course he chooses, he seems haunted by guilt and regret. Gibbons begins the novel as a sort of golden boy, but he ends up in a much darker place.
Doctorow devises an intriguing fate for Banks as well, although it doesn’t have the same power as his buddy’s narrative arc. One of Makers’s villains experiences a redemption of sorts; granted, his reformation is only partial, but this makes it seem all the more realistic. And a secondary character who detects a subtle, community-driven story in the ride’s constantly evolving permutations pays a terrible price for aligning himself with Banks and Gibbons but ends up becoming a sort of cult leader.
Still, as satisfying as some aspects of this book are, they don’t make up for its shortcomings. Engineers might love Makers, and science fiction enthusiasts and other futurologists might also enjoy it, but other readers ought to steer clear of this novel.