Monday, December 29, 2014

The Last Word in Review: Makers by Cory Doctorow

Reviewed by Charlie Jack Joseph Kruger (

When it comes to science fiction, we no longer live in a time when the distant future is scary. What is scary about science fiction now is the crippling realization that we are what HG Wells warned us about. We are a realized future of Hell. So, the strongest recent sci-fi works have all been set more so in 'the day after tomorrow' than '10,000 years later'. The unknown terrors of other worlds and technologies built upon dreams are less shocking and nerve-wracking than the technologies and mysteries that await us behind the latest drones and iPads. We are living in the future.

'Makers' is a book that is painfully aware of this. So aware, in fact, that it juggles the reader around with moments of complete normalcy, and even 80s tinged moments of capitalistic excess. Our Tyrell Corp (or Weyland Yutani or Omni Consumer Products, if you will) here in this book is more immediate. It is a company you can see someone you went to high school saying they work for on Facebook. The company exists not to create new technologies or to arrange new world, but simply to glue together our refuse and sell it back to us to pacify ourselves. The company is introduced in a press conference and seen through the eyes of our protagonist, a plucky and pointed journalist interested in what is really going on with the smiling spokesman up at the podium. The spokesman, through capped and polished teeth talks about finding discarded or ignored technologies and combining them, (for example, a laser pointer that uses a speech to text program to display words that are spoken through light onto any surface) creating new commodities, and new products with wholly new uses. The company will simply find inventors, buy their goods, pay them off and then mass produce the items, flooding the world.

This concept reminded me of Malcolm McLaren. As the crass fiend behind creating the iconic image of 'punk rock' and the attempted Svengali of Johnny Rotten and scores of others, he once made the statement that 'all of the notes have been played, nothing is original, we just have to arrange them again.' That sort of mindset felt very ingrained in the portrayal of the company in question in this book. They weren’t making anything NEW, so to speak, they were simply finding new ways to sell you old things. And if that isn’t the basis for a nightmarish vision of the future...

One moment early on in the book involved the reporter standing in a warehouse with two inventors as she was shown how the guts of an old Sesame Street electronic toy could be used to create nervous systems for paralyzed and injured people. And how that same basic technology could be used to create cute distractions. It was here in the book that things started to click and fall into place. It felt like the book was not just commenting on the dangerous future of blister-pack consumerism that is lurking in the dark alleyways of tomorrow, but also pointing out that we have everything we need to save the world already in front of us. But we cover it all in fake fur and laugh at its programed cuteness.

A lot about this book feels reminiscent of 'Atlas Shrugged'. Except, where Ayn Rand preached a world of vicious selfishness and the myopic pursuit of Brazilian hardwood desks with mahogany inlays and doors thick enough to shut out compassion and emotion, Cory Doctorow seems to be making a different statement with this tale of a maverick industrialist, flirting with an intrepid female reporter who demands to know the truth. With 'Makers' the point seems to be something more sustaining and accepting. The world wants blister-packs of single-use disposable happiness and interaction. The world wants it, so it has to be made. At least it can be made by people who care. And at least it can be made from the hollowed shells of yesterdays blister-packed life savers. John Galt (or the synthetic spokesman for this repackaging firm in this book) isn’t a hero here. He isn’t the fedora-adorned savior of the terminally inhuman. He is a vestige of a crassness that we don’t have room for. Our reporter and her two new friends, inventors and dreamers with screw-bitten fingertips are the heroes. Our heroes have grease and oil on their hands.

'Makers' reads like a socially liberal and economically aware answer to the selfish screed that is 'Atlas Shrugged'. I only wish Ayn had been given the chance to read it.

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