Book Review – “For The Win” and “Makers” by Cory Doctorow

I read my first Cory Doctorow book a month-or-so before the first OggCamp, September 2009. It was “Little Brother”, a “young adult” book about rebelling against the panopticon that was being created by the War on Terror. It made such an impact on me that I gave a talk at OggCamp about the technologies discussed in the book (primarily Tor and PGP) and their role in society. It went down well enough that I gave that talk again at BarCamp Manchester… a talk on a technology I’d not heard of two months before, and had significantly changed my views on how much I wanted to share with faceless companies and organisations.

My next Doctorow book was an audiobook version of “Eastern Standard Tribe”, which I only really was focused on the first chapter (it’s hard to be focused on audio when you’re as much of a magpie as I am) but it made me want to build a chording computer keyboard to use with my mobile phone after a passing comment in the opening chapter.

Last month, I heard that “For The Win”, a follow up Young Adult story had been released, so I eagerly reserved it from my local library and noticed that “Makers”, a more adult novel, had also been released, so I reserved that too.

A colleague knew that I’d read and loved “Little Brother” so asked me to tell him what I thought of “For The Win”. I read it in a couple of days. Sadly, it’s not a good book and it’s far too fragmented to tell the story in a way that you could stop for a couple of days and come back to it. It’s also desperate to explain the subtle nuances of in-game economies and unions – neither of which particularly interested me. By the end of the book, I was left wondering what the point had been – there was no real conclusion and while a battle had been won, it was clear the war was far from over. The characters all ran together and a lot of the characters were little more than stereotypical extras, whether that was racially stereotypical, gender or even ageist.

I left that book sad that I’d read it… but, I had another Cory book to read. After all, the recent books can’t *all* be stinkers, right?

I picked up “Makers” and started reading. It’s a thicker book, and this took me nearly four days to read… although admittedly, I was building a new server part way through days two and three.

This was more like the story I’d hoped “For The Win” would be. It’s a three part story; part one is about the friendship between the two lead characters, the commercialisation and massive growth of their hobby-cum-career. Part two is where that growth suddenly died, taking all the jobs with it, and their homage to “New Work” – the name given to the outcome of part one. Part three is where a mega-corp notices they’re losing money to the homage (called “The Ride”) and they try to destroy it.

It describes my experiences and hopes for the hacker culture perfectly, wanting to build something for the sake of it, discussing the concepts behind making something great from something passé and the ideas behind making an open API to let anyone play with your ideas. It also suggests how big business doesn’t “get” the hacker culture. As with much of Cory’s work, there’s lots of scope to implement his ideas in the real world, and some of the projects he mentions, I’d love to set up at my local hackspace.

The only downside I’ve found with “Makers” is that I think there’s a lot of sex in it, both implied and referred to… I guess I don’t see the relevance in a sex scene unless it’s key to the characters growth, and in “Makers” you could have removed 3/4 of the sex scenes and it would have been mostly the same book. I realise it explains some of the decisions in the book and gives some colour to the characters, but one of the side effects is that it means I can’t give this book to my 13 year old cousin – hell, I can’t even give him “Little Brother” because of the single solitary, and destinctly unnecessary sex scene 2/3rds of the way through the book.

In summary, I’d skip “For The Win”, and read “Makers”. 2/5 and 4/5 respectively.