In a sense, Makers is a novel the way Magritte's pipe is a pipe. There are characters. There's a well-constructed plot. There are themes, scenes, acts, conflicts, dénouements, and an epilogue. There's even a rousing humping scene (pp. 161-163). The book is in the tradition of works such as Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net (1988) or David Brin's Earth (1991). Makers is a novel. Which is a pity. It's the least interesting aspect of the book. What Doctorow has to say is important and interesting, but the fiction gets in the way.
Makers deals with the business adventures of Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks, inventor-entrepreneurs, committed to making cool new things. Squaring the circle are Landon Kettlewell, a "New Work" pioneer, whose Kodacell Corporation takes their products to market, and Suzanne Church, a Silicon Valley journalist, who quits her job to chronicle the duo's adventure in the new media. There are a couple of villains: Freddy, a British gossip-columnist expat, described for the first couple of pages as "Rat-Tooth," and Sammy, a Disney executive. Being a rat, Freddy suffers from bad breath, and Sammy, being a suit, suffers from the soul-threatening and hard-to-cure Rob Lowe Syndrome.
An important thread in the story involves a Goth teen, Death Waits, and his coming-of-employment. He's an economic misfit in today's world, but not, as Doctorow shows, in the world of "whirlwind changes to come." One of the book's neat touches is the linking of near future super-capitalism with the Gothic emphasis on transience.
Makers is about two kinds of technology. One is derived from bottom-up, open sourced, decentralized, organic, people trusting processes. The other is, well, Microsoft. The story's conflict is based on these opposing ways of creating new technology, a conflict popularized in Eric Raymond's now famous "The Cathedral And The Bazaar" essay. Technology itself is a source of conflict of course. As media theorist Harold Innes has observed, any technology has three consequences: it influences the objects we think about, the objects we think with, and the communities we think in. But Doctorow clearly understands that it has one more aspect: we become how we make things. The first two parts of the book set up the conflict and its intensification. In the third part of the book, he offers a resolution.
The resolution is an interesting one. We can adopt two approaches to the future: the contingent and the constructed. It's the difference between the sewer rat and Mickey mouse. For most of human history, the future was largely a contingent affair, lurching from accident to consequence to accident. The constructed (or, more precisely, engineered) future, is a relatively new idea. Of course, these two viewpoints are not necessarily exclusive. But each leads to distinct worlds. One either has an Amazonian rainforest or an English garden. Designed worlds—Magic Kingdoms—may be safe, efficient, beautiful, moral, and humane; it is unlikely, however, that they will ever be rainforests. Doctorow suggests, I think, that it is possible to construct the future in a contingent way. His resolution of the conflict is plausible, though the epilogue indicates he doesn't quite believe it'll work.
Near-future fiction usually picks one or two issues to use as a telescope. In Sterling's Holy Fire (1996), health is the lens through which everything is examined; in this novel, it's entrepreneurship. However, Doctorow is not really interested in business as such. For example, when Kodacell goes belly up, the entire event is dismissed in about a page, not very convincingly and over a phone call. Disney Park's boardroom intrigues border on caricature. Minorities and marginals are handled sympathetically, but they're still problems to be solved, not central to the solutions. This point is important because there's an early reference to Muhammad Yunus's Grameen bank which revolutionized money lending to the poor; Doctorow brings it up to suggest, I think, that an analogous social entrepreneurship model can free all people—even the disadvantaged—to become makers. But in practice, solutions are presented as the Hero's Burden. That's because the book isn't about firms, finance, near-future economics, or even social entrepreneurship. Doctorow's admiring focus is on inventor-entrepreneurs and the pleasure of making new, insanely cool things.
Perry and Lester are makers. What is being made is not particularly important. When Suzanne asks "Why make a toast robot?," Lester's reply is a surplus-value version of "because I can":
"It's a potlatch: I have so much material and computational wealth that I can afford to waste it on frivolous junk." (p. 33)
And make they do: smart cars controlled by robot boogie-woogie Elmos. Mechanical calculators out of flattened soda-cans. 3-D scanner-printers that output epoxy models. RFID-based "roomware" that helps wetware resolve resource-constrained NP-complete scheduling and layout problems, otherwise known as getting your effing roomie to wash the goddamn dishes and put away his porno collection. New games like Calvinball, in which the only rule is that oranges are divisible by 2. Tchotchkes made of aerogel and resin. Self-replicating von Neumann machines, makers that make makers. But the most important artifact Perry and Lester make, the soul of the book, is "the ride."
The ride is a bit like an embodied StumbleUpon, where sites are cabinets of curiosities put together by ordinary people, and navigation through "ridespace" is a physical traversal through what they hold dear. Doctorow's description of the ride is appealing, even passionate. I mentally pictured zipping around an Ikea-type showroom in one of those suspensor chairs that Baron Harkonnen uses on Dune. The ride is a curious and completely original artifact. Doctorow suggests that the superimposition of tens of thousands of traversals—each traversal shaping the next—will, over time, produce a Story. What this Story is about is left to the reader's imagination. I find it interesting that he should have such faith in group creativity, or more precisely, in what might be called an "evolutionary collectivism"—a spontaneous, voluntary, self-organized, non-sequential effort that's allowed to evolve. In fact, he has in mind a specific effort, namely, the effort to make things.
On practically every page, Doctorow reveals a near-compulsive appreciation of the fabrication of things. For example, Tjan, a friend and business manager—a suit, for God's sake—cannot provide a car ride from the airport without mentioning that the car is a Lada, Russian, and that evolutionary algorithms were used to produce an optimal "minimum-materials/maximum-strength chassis." This relish of world construction is parodied in Mark Rosenfelder's famous "If all stories were written like science-fiction stories," but Doctorow has made it, in some ways, the point of his book. On the whole, I loved these riffs, these paeans to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurial action is a social good, and for me, its importance cannot be overemphasized.
It would have been nice to complement my enthusiasm for the book's philosophical stance with an equally enthusiastic appreciation of its literary qualities. Unfortunately, the book didn't work for me as a novel. The focus on ideas turns characters into idea-paperweights. The various twists and turns in the plot are rather well-worn and predictable, and the over-reliance on just four or five characters results in a fish-eye projection of the near-future. For a novel about the world to come, the book gazes almost exclusively at a North American navel, and it's an oversight not easily excused in so cosmopolitan an author. The descriptive sections tend to be hurried and the sentences are only a means to an end.
On a larger scale, Makers is a collection of fascinating fragments hung on the clothesline of an uninteresting story. I had a hard time caring about the characters. Lester is fat, Lester loves Suzanne, Lester loses weight, Lester has issues, Lester humps Suzanne, Lester has issues, Lester gets old . . . the situations have no need of the near-future as a setting. I was more interested in what Lester thought about things. About the singularity, future drugs, about cars that jump rather than roll around, about this and that and anything that has artifice in it. I suspect that's what Doctorow really cares about too. He cares passionately about technology, understood in its broadest sense, as the human control of measurable variables.
His fragments on how litigation venture funding works, on how the iced-coffee cans Sammy likes to chug contain embedded CO2 canisters, on the structure of "New Work," on what the ride is about, on how roomware will change how people live together, on whether great groups are hard to put together because flaws are multiplicative while virtues are additive, etc. etc. constitute the book's brilliant mind. These fragments are not infodumps because their purpose is not to reveal essential, tedious information. They are futuristic riffs in the best tradition of speculative thinking. I think the fragments are the real reason why Doctorow wrote the book. His ability to think up these fragments is the reason people love his blog articles, the reason why Boing Boing is such a major watering hole and the reason why this book will be read, despite its literary shortcomings.
It is unfair to criticize a book for what it does not try to be. In this case however, I will, because it points to the possibility of a new kind of writing. I think Makers would have worked better as speculative non-fiction. Ideally, speculation in a SF novel should be a means to an end, but when it becomes the end itself, then it is time to jettison the novel format. We've begun to see some early signs of such ejections. Emerging disciplines like "speculative economics" and "speculative biology" encourage speculative ideas to be worked out carefully, even elegantly, without having to invoke the clumsy paraphernalia of fiction. Is Schrödinger's "What Is Life" any less literary because it doesn't have family drama and existential angst? If an economist wants to discuss how interstellar trade would work, does she really need a space opera? If a finance theorist wishes to explore whether the theory of interest rates rules out time travel does he need to bring in a Romantic Love Interest to spoon feed us the speculation? No. Modern readers have no need of such semantic sugar. Aldous Huxley called for a fictional form that would be "a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay, a novel in which one can put all one's ideas, a novel like a hold-all." Perhaps it's possible. Speculation is independent of fiction though, and this work illustrates both positively and negatively why it's an independence worth encouraging. Sometimes the best representation of a pipe is the pipe itself.
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, Interzone, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Shockwave, and From The Trenches. He was nominated for the 2006 Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Prize and the 2007 Million Writers Award. His YA novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet is out now from Zubaan Books.