Perry and Lester are two guys living in an abandoned mall outside of Miami. They’re the sort of guys who, to borrow a phrase from the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, can think up six impossible things before breakfast — and then build them in their workshop out of stuff they’ve found in the junkyard.
In short, they’re makers.
Cory Doctorow’s Makers: A Novel of the Whirlwind Changes to Come is jam-packed with cool ideas. In the book, a lot of these come from Perry and Lester, like a toast-making robot made of seashells or the Distributed Boogie Woogie Elmo Motor Vehicle Operation Cluster, which uses a gaggle of discarded toys to drive a Smart car via voice commands. Now these two examples are pretty silly — something you do just to prove you can, but there’s also some stuff that shows up later in the book that made me think, “Hey, I’d buy one of those!” Parts of the book read like a “Best of Kickstarter” highlights reel.
It’s clear that Doctorow has done his research. In his acknowledgments he gives a shout-out to “all the makers who let me hold their skateboards while they welded the killer robots.” I wondered as I read the book how much of this he came up with himself and how much was inspired by some real people tinkering away in their basements. At one level, it doesn’t really matter, because it all works into the story.
Makers is much more than just a list of stuff you could build, though. It’s a story set in the near-future about a collapsing economy and the decline of big corporations. The book opens at a press conference: Landon Kettlewell is the CEO of the newly combined Kodak and Duracell, but he’s not interested in making film or batteries. Instead, he’s planning to use the capital, the supplier relationships, the physical plants, and so on to fund and support the “billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.” Basically he’s turning a couple of corporate dinosaurs into a vast network of tiny start-ups. It’s like funding all the projects on Kickstarter with some very deep pockets.
Suzanne Church, a journalist-blogger who made her name chronicling the dot-boom, eventually signs on to be an “embedded journalist” in Perry and Lester’s workshop. What she discovers there is remarkable, and she has the cachet to sell it to the rest of America. Perry and Lester become superstars just doing what they love to do, and it sparks an economic revolution dubbed “New Work,” as people all over the country start making and doing and selling their own stuff. It’s an amazing transformation.
And then it all falls apart, only about a quarter of the way through the book, and you wonder where Doctorow could possibly be going with it next. It seemed so fantastic, so optimistic. But what happens next is just as remarkable, and it’s a ride worth taking.
I’ve already given away more of the plot than I usually like to, but this is a book that just makes you want to talk about it. It contains multitudes: Disney (with its rising and falling fortunes) and a particularly despicable VP make a great villain, as does Rat-Tooth Freddy, a British mud-slinging journalist who likes nothing more than tearing down other people with big ideas. 3D printers. Russian clinics that specialize in extreme hormone/metabolism/stem cell treatments that help the obese lose incredible amounts of weight — who then have to eat thousands of calories per meal just to keep from starving away. Mechanical computers made of soda cans that perform computations using Barbie heads and M&Ms.
It’s also a story about friendships and business relationships strained to the breaking point and beyond, and the patched together again. Because the novel takes place over a long period, there’s enough time for the characters to really develop and change and you really get to know and love them, even the villains.
Doctorow’s writing is superb. He writes like somebody who’s living a couple years in the future, throwing out new slang that just sounds right. He’ll use a word that you’ve never heard before but you’ll know exactly what he means by it and by the end of the book you’ll forget that people don’t talk like that yet. What makes his picture of the future so engaging is that a lot of it is extrapolated from today’s trends just enough so as to remain plausible — for instance, MP3 players have now become so small and cheap that they’re basically just a set of earbuds with everything packed inside. It’s the plausibility of the things we understand that helps us buy into the wilder, crazier predictions that he makes alongside them. Ultimately, it’s an optimistic view of the future of our society, even with all its failings and collapses. Doctorow’s writing really grabs you and draws you into the story, so that when the New Work movement falls apart you’ll feel like you’ve been living in that world for a few years rather than just over a hundred pages.
If you’re at all interested in maker culture and the possibilities it holds for our future, you should definitely read Makers. And then you should get yourself to a Maker Faire — a bunch of us GeekDads will be at the Bay Area Maker Faire in May — to see some of the philosophy and ideas in action.
One note: I should mention that Makers is not for kids. There’s a lot of strong language, one brief but extremely violent scene, and a steamy sex scene that gets pretty explicit. It’s definitely not appropriate for children or the faint of heart, although these are only two scenes in a 400-page book.
Finally: if you’re curious and you’ve got an eBook reader of any sort (or even your browser), Doctorow has made the digital version of Makers available for download at his website for free. It’s DRM-free and there are multiple formats for whatever device you’re using, so you’ve got nothing to lose. Of course, you can always purchase a copy if you prefer.
Disclosure: Tor Books provided a review copy of Makers.