Thursday, September 16, 2010

Recommendation: 'For the win' by Cory Doctorow

For the win by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow has a fascination with how things work. His works of fiction take more than occasional detours down the path of instructables, tracts of text that teach you how to do something. In Little Brother it was how to keep secrets on computers, and ways of circumventing digital surveillance. Almost all of Makers was about making something. And now in For the win Doctorow has built-in instructions on how an entire monetary economy is made, and how workers get together in unions to fight for better conditions.

It would be a mistake to think that such instructions make for boring reading. Doctorow infuses such passion for the subject matter into his writing that the enthusiasm can't be avoided. In For the win's case the economics and labour background adds depth, immediacy and importance to the narrative, but it's still principally a book about young people, working in the new digital economies of MMORPGs, and fighting to make life better. Doctorow's breathless discussion of economic theory beyond mere personal motivation gives a big picture sense of urgency to the book.

Nothing about For the win is small picture, though. The cast of main characters is like an ensemble production, with chapters jumping between nearly a dozen principal characters, found in China, India, California, and the Pacific Ocean. Doctorow comes close to painting his characters as little more than two-dimensional, but manages to maintain momentum and motivation to the fullest that these two dimensions allow. His characters are mostly outsiders – children, gamers, unionisers, factory workers. It's when they come together that such voices gain strength, and the novel is not shy about the consequences of trying to be heard when you are so insignificant to the world.

For the win is at times violent, but also contains a lot of warmth and compassion. One character, Wei-Dong, takes massive risks to come to the aid of his friends in the games, Chinese 'gold-miners' who work in pitiful conditions generating wealth for the owners of their game 'factories.' Doctorow quite masterfully combines the real-life camaraderie, teamwork and passion of gamers with the harsh working conditions of urban factory workers in Asia. The gold-farming factories he invents don't seem all that far away from reality.

Doctorow reminds me more and more of one of my favourite science fiction authors, Robert Heinlein. Heinlein, too, shared a passion for explaining how things worked, and his so-called juvenile books – like Have space suit - will travel (also available in downloadable audio book form) and Farmer in the sky were packed full of the kind of practical knowledge that didn't lose its usefulness when the book was closed.

- Ash

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