Books

Makers by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorw's book presents a near-future not as science fiction but more like wire service news reports from just a few months down the road.


Makers

Publisher: Tor
Length: 416
Author: Cory Doctorow
Price: $24.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2009-11
Amazon

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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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