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Cory Doctorow
Tor, 416 pages

Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow was born in Toronto, in 1971. He has sold fiction since the age of 17. His story, "Craphound," was published in Science Fiction Age. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was his first novel.

Cory Doctorow Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Makers
SF Site Review: Little Brother
SF Site Review: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town
SF Site Review: Eastern Standard Tribe
SF Site Review: A Place So Foreign
SF Site Review: Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

If I want to send a message, Sam Goldwyn is reported to have said, I'll use Western Union. He was wrong, of course; most fictions convey a message of some sort, they cannot do otherwise since they emerge from the creator's awareness of and ideas about the world around her. But in the main, and in most successful cases, the story comes first and the message emerges naturally from it.

Cory Doctorow reverses this. He has a lot of interesting, and possibly important, things to say about the state of the world and how it should be changed. But in his fiction he tends to put the message first, and hopes that the story will emerge naturally from that. Sometimes, as in Little Brother, he can get away with it, when the didactic nature of the story means we tend not to mind being hit over the head with the message on every page. Unfortunately, Makers isn't so successful.

In part this is because Makers is not aimed at a young adult audience and therefore tries to be more sophisticated in its structure. It is, I think, by some way the longest novel he has written to date, but the length tends to reveal that plotting isn't as confident and coherent as it perhaps needs to be to carry the weight of the message. But more than that, the message itself is less clear. In fact, in many ways there are too many messages jostling for our attention: an attack on the Disneyfication of America (which has come into his work before); a siren call for all information to be free (which has long been the message of his blogs); a belief that the old business model is moribund; and more. The trouble is that the ups and downs of story tend to blunt the impact of these messages, while the urge to get the various messages across tends to make the story feel formulaic.

We start at a press conference when Kettlewell, a cool entrepreneurial type, announces that he has just bought two ailing, old-economy companies, Kodak and Duracell. Of course there are going to be redundancies, he declares as the disgruntled workers storm the press conference, but hey, it's going to be all right because he'll use the money to fund an entirely new economic model. Instead of outdated corporate dinosaurs, there's going to be an exciting new world of sprightly little companies geared to small-scale enterprise and invention.

Now you and I know that it is going to take a hell of a lot of small enterprises to replace the sheer employment power of one mega-corporation, so there are going to be losers in this scheme. But that's okay, because they will all be able to come up with their own brand new idea and get the business backing they need to make a go of it. It's amazing how creative entrepreneurial types believe that everyone else would be creative and entrepreneurial too, given half a chance. It really doesn't work like that, but this is a version of the go-getter American dream that, I suspect, Doctorow buys into every bit as much as Kettlewell.

But wait, I am sure Doctorow would protest, sympathies for the unemployed and under-privileged run all through this book. Consider, for example, Hollywood, Florida, the ironically-named setting for most of the novel, where much of the action takes place in a shanty town inhabited by those who have missed out on the American dream. Which is perfectly true, except that more and more as we go through the novel the shanty town becomes a model American community, everyone has their own little business, the buildings are all constructed in imaginative and beautiful ways, it has its own system of laws in place and is better policed than the outside. Even the criminal elements, on the rare occasion we meet any, are just waiting for a chance to be absorbed into the communal enterprise.

Of course, Doctorow's brave new version of the American dream is pretty much like the old version in one key point: it's about making money. Our viewpoint character (at least in the early part of the novel before he begins shifting perspective rather more than is strictly necessary) is Suzanne Church, a reporter on a Silicon Valley newspaper who quits her job to blog about Kettlewell's brand new enterprise, and naturally finds that she has far more readers and makes far more money through her blog.

Suzanne heads to Hollywood, Florida, to follow one of the little enterprises supported by Kettlewell. This is a two-man operation involving the odd couple of Perry and Lester, inveterate tinkerers with mechanical devices. They come up with one neat idea that sells well until someone else copies it and does it cheaper, so then they come up with another new idea. And so it goes. This new, dispersed, multifarious economic model makes a bigger percentage return on investment, so we are told, but the actual cash return isn't big enough to support Kettlewell's organisation. Like the dot-com boom before it (which this new model so closely resembles), the whole thing comes crashing down.

Ah but that's only the beginning of the story, because Perry and Lester emerge from the ashes with another new idea. In the abandoned shopping mall that had housed their workshop, they build a giant amusement park ride that commemorates their adventures in free enterprise. What's more, they allow visitors to add their own items to the displays, and also to vote on what should be kept or moved. This means that the display is constantly evolving, so much so that fans eventually come to believe that a story is being revealed. The real innovation, though, is that they give other groups free licence to replicate the ride elsewhere around the country, and even around the world. And the rides are all linked so that what changes in one can be reproduced in all the others.

This, not unnaturally, arouses the enmity of a rogue manager at Disneyland. He attacks the Ride (it is never known by any other name) first through sabotage, then violence, and finally through legal means. Which results in our creative entrepreneurs devising a whole new way of dealing with corporate law (although it feels to me more as if it belongs with Jarndyce vs Jarndyce).

For ideas-led fiction such as this, it all follows a predictable enough path: an idea is proposed, tested to destruction, reborn, tested again. But around this is wrapped a story that feels as if it comes from the other Hollywood. There's the romance between Suzanne and Lester, which is complicated by the fact that Lester starts the novel as obese until he undergoes a revolutionary new Russian treatment that renders him slim but has other health consequences. There's the Christmas Carol story of the Disney executive who plays the bad guy until he sees the error of his ways and becomes one of the good guys. (And like rather too much Hollywood fiction, the real bad guy is, of course, played by a Briton.) There is the way our messiah of free information, Perry, is tempted by the money and the compulsion of the legal dark side, until he reasserts his freedom-loving credentials. And above all there's the romance between Perry and Lester, the two pals who work together, make a fortune together, drift apart, come back together, then split up once more, only for there to be a final tear-filled reconciliation just as the music swells and the final credits start to roll.

This is not, let me stress, a bad book. But it is not as good a book as it might have been, because neither the message nor the story are quite strong enough to make up for the other's weakness, and because all too often Doctorow seems to buy into the American myth he appears to be intending to subvert.

Copyright © 2010 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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