My boys, 14 and 17, belong to a book club whose tastes run heavily towards science fiction. You could almost call it a mother-son book club, since at least one mom (the facilitator, who studied at RPI) and often one or two of the rest of us (including a former physics professor) read the book and join in. Which is how I came to read Cory Doctorow’s just-released YA novel, For the Win. Actually, I didn’t read it in time for the book club meeting, because the boys had to share the copy we bought and it was still too new to be in at the library. And in fact, if I were going by their reaction I probably would have skipped it, because their reaction was lukewarm at best. It was the enthusiasm of Terri, the group facilitator, that really inspired me to pick the book up and read it myself.
For the Win (Tor Teen) tells the interlocking stories of teen online gamers who play for pay. These “gold farmers” travel the virtual worlds of the most popular in gangs called guilds, defeating opponents (whether computer-generated or controlled by other players) to win prizes which are sold in the real world for real money. But the Indian, Chinese and Southeast Asian cafes in which these kids play are in reality sweatshops run by adults. And like owners going back to the dawn of time, exploit their workers for their own gain. However, the young gladiators use their fighting and organizational skills to unite against the bosses, pitting teenage ingenuity and bravado against brutal small-time hoodlums. At the same time, they must dodge the wrath of the giant multinational corporations (including, interestingly, Coca-Cola) who own the games themselves and resent the money drained from their worlds by the roving gangs of soldiers-for-hire.
Now I am not a gamer, and the world(s) described in Doctorow’s novel are completely foreign to me. But as Terri described it, For the Win was a great introduction to global economics. As she pointed out, Doctorow does a really good job of explaining our current financial mess using the buying, trading and speculating of virtual treasure as an example. And he manages to slip in a history of the labor movement through the Webblies, a union of gold farmers named in homage to the Wobblies. In fact, For the Win is overflowing with details Doctorow culled from several years of research into the online computer game community and the money dealings behind the games. It’s possible, as I did, to read it solely to learn about this little-understood world, as well as Doctorow’s own view of how things should be. In that way, For the Win makes a nice counterpart to that other economic screed disguised as a novel, Atlas Shrugged (although of course one is sympathetic to the workers and the other to the bosses).
Although Terri would disagree, it’s as a story that For the Win falls short. Unlike Little Brother, Doctorow’s popular teen takeoff on 1984, For the Win encompasses many settings and a huge roster of characters. Doctorow manages to make many of them likable and interesting, particularly Wei-Dong Goldberg (given name: Leonard), a disaffected slacker from California; Mala, also known as General Robotwallah, who commands a gold-farming guild in the poorest Indian slum; and Jie, the Chinese host of an underground call-in show which caters to millions of lonely factory girls. But milling about the book are hordes of lesser characters who pop in for a scene or two and then disappear, overloading the reader’s circuits.
And although For the Win describes a near-future world (Doctorow has said that “good science fiction predicts the present”), it is as much YA as SF. That means a lot of gritty depressing realism. For some sensitive readers, that can be hard to take. Still, I’d recommend For the Win to teens and adults who don’t mind getting a little education tucked into their fiction.