Ghost Malls and Boogie-Woogie Elmos
Cory Doctorow loves things, particularly the making of new things out of old, and by the end of his alternately fleet-footed and lumbering novel, Makers, you will love them too. You might even try assembling some things of your own, preferably by disassembling some old laptops and combining their gutted innards with kitchen implements to create a freaky-crawly butler-bot, which makes you tea while calculating pi. Maybe a personal computer of 1960s-operating power constructed solely from office supplies and processors dug out of the garbage. If this is the case, then Doctorow’s work will have been accomplished.
Makers launches readers into a near-future that reads not as science fiction but more like wire service news reports from just a few years or months down the road. It does this even while utilizing very little in the way of a story, a fact that nearly proves to be the book’s undoing more than a few times. Like some of the best science fiction, it doesn’t require much suspension of disbelief, and in fact often simply requires reading just beyond the horizon of the latest reports on Florida and California neighborhoods emptied by defaulted mortgages, or dispatches from African mines where the precious materials for all the western world’s increasingly disposable electronics are harvested. Doctorow writes on the cusp of now.
Our introduction to this world is fittingly a journalist. When we first meet Suzanne Church, a technology writer for the increasingly-beleaguered San Jose Mercury News, she’s covering a press conference. There, a surfer-smooth executive by the preppie-fantastic name of Landon Kettlewell is giving his pitch on the exciting possibilities being offered by the just-announced merger of Kodak and Duracell. According to Kettlewell, the new company (already dubbed Kodacell) won’t be in the business of running factories where workers punch out widgets, they’re moving into the seed-money realm, operating as a kind of super-microcredit organization for inventors. Tossing a pen-like gadget to Suzanne which translates spoken dialogue into text that it laser-beams onto any nearby surface, Kettlewell enthuses about the thing and the team who created it, now on payroll with Kodacell:
This thing wasn’t invented. All the parts necessary to make this go were just laying around. It was assembled ... It was easy to do once. We’re going to do it 10,000 times this year. We’re sending out talent scouts, like the artists and representation people the record labels used to use, and they’re going to sign up a lot of these bands for us, and help them to cut records, to start businesses that push out to the edges of business.
It’s inspiring, in a geeky, Wired manner, and Doctorow neatly transfers Kettlewell’s bleeding-edge executive innovator enthusiasm to Suzanne and the reader once she heads out on assignment to Florida, in a dead shopping mall near a shantytown, where a pair of half-mad geniuses, Perry and Lester, are creating the future out of garbage. Being a modern journalist, Suzanne blogs it all.
The novel’s first part, which runs for little over a hundred pages, is an all-out sprint through the possibilities of what could be done when overly imaginative tinkerers are paired with the detritus of the modern era, an almost-here time when digital music players are as disposable as earbud headphones (in fact, they are the headphones) and cheap children’s toys have more advanced electronics than today’s top-line military hardware. In their swamp-sweltering workspace, Perry and Lester create one gizmo after another to sell to collectors, including one awesomely jury-rigged contraption made from the guts of a once must-have toy, Boogie Woogie Elmo:
“That’s from the great Elmo Crash,” Perry said, taking back the box and expertly extracting the Elmo like he was shelling a nut. “The last and greatest generation of Elmoid technology, cast into an uncaring world that bought millions of Li’l Tagger washable graffiti kits after Rosie gave them two thumbs up in her Christmas shopping guide.”
Doctorow’s passion for this kind of junkyard genius is infectious, particularly once Kodacell brings in Tjan, a business manager who gets Perry and Lester to start thinking in terms of their market. In no time at all, the trio have made the Kitchen Gnome, whacking together “some Homeland Security gait-recognition software with a big solid-state hard disk and a microphone and a little camera” and sticking it all into hundreds of six-inch garden gnomes. The Kitchen Gnome turns out to be “a killer tool for context-sensitive reminders to kids to do the dishes, and for husbands, wives, and roommates to nag each other without getting on each other’s nerves.”
The mounds of high-quality disposed electronics, an America where ever-plummeting employment stats and a shell-shocked economy have left people itchy and seeking, combined with readily available 3-D printers (scan something you want to replicate, put some epoxy in the printer, and presto, 3-D replication), added to Suzanne’s high blog traffic, lead to an explosion of interest in Perry and Lester’s work. Soon the whole country is inventing, everything from printer-printers to self-modifying jungle gyms. It’s a beautiful explosion of talent, a garage-tech paradise.
Then things get worse, the modern world’s boomerang arc of technology, greed, violence, and poverty.
It would spoil too much of Makers to detail its later phases, but suffice it to say that though the honeymoon doesn’t last, Doctorow is too much the wide-eyed innovator to play the pessimist all the way through. Unfortunately, his weaknesses in the fiction department became quite apparent once the novel leaves its opening section behind. Although Doctorow creates a winning band of protagonists (all hyperbolically talented and engaged, though possessed with enough flaws to make them recognizably human), his villains tend to be one mustache-twirl away from screeching caricature. Although the book’s later introduction of Disney World as a major plot point is interesting, it overly belabors a joke about the company regearing part of the park to appeal to middle-aged goths, and also seems to strip-mine Doctorow’s earlier writing on Disney for inspiration.
Originally serialized on Salon back in 2005 as Themepunks (and currently available in dozens of segments on publisher Tor’s website here), Makers still has an unnervingly up-to-the-minute feel, finessing the country’s modern malaise with sharply observant, tossed-off remarks (“the housing was wicked cheap once the economy disappeared”). It has that Neal Stephenson-type kick to it, the pulsing creativity, dry humor, and generously overstuffed plotting that gave books like The Diamond Age such a boost.
But Doctorow is maybe a greater pessimist than Stephenson, who seemed more comfortable with his dystopias. The vision of Makers, for all its geek-enthusiasms over clever hacks, is a darkened one, where all-too-available technology serves as the lubricant for society’s entropic slide, and the piles of garbage could blot out the sun.