Work is not a popular topic for science fiction. This should be surprising. Employment, or the lack of it, has an enormous impact on our lives, both as a source of income and a linchpin of personal identity. We are what we do. Yet when it comes to world-building, the source of characters’ paycheques usually remains a detail to be glossed over (often unconvincingly). Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano is one of the few novels to tackle the subject of future-work directly — and that was published in 1952.
Maybe authors find work too mundane a theme. It undermines the escapism all readers inherently crave. Who wants to take a break from their stressful jobs to read about characters stressed over their jobs?
Along comes Cory Doctorow’s Makers, where technological unemployment lies at the heart of the struggles faced by its characters. Lester Bangs and Perry Gibbons live in a near-future America littered with hollowed-out Wal-Marts and expanding, four-storey shanty towns. The economy has floundered into permanent headless-chicken mode. Lester and Perry’s workspace is a junkyard. They make new disposable stuff out of old disposable stuff. Some of it quite brilliant, all of it fundamentally useless.
When ambitious entrepreneur Landon Kettlewell scoops up two faltering former blue-chip companies (“There is no world in which Kodak and Duracell go on making film and batteries,” Kettlewell declares) and converts their resources to support a network of small teams of makers (i.e. inventors), Lester and Perry are swept up in a wave soon dubbed the “New Work” movement.
Reporter and blogger Suzanne Church becomes embedded with Lester and Perry’s team, following the dramatic ups and downs of New Work. Her journalistic ethics crumble as she abandons her reporting job to become a full-time blogger and increasingly finds herself promoting rather than covering Lester and Perry’s off-the-wall inspirations and successes.
And then, abruptly, the whole movement collapses at the whim of Wall Street.
It’s at this point that Makers begins to waver and eventually loses sight of itself completely. In the aftermath of New Work’s collapse, Lester and Perry invent an amusement ride using 3-D printers to feature an interactive showcase of the movement’s many successes.
As the ride’s popularity increases, spawning other similar rides across the country, Makers drifts away from Lester and Perry and begins to focus on Sammy Page, a Disney executive who experiences the duo’s ride and immediately fears its significance. Aside from Sammy and a tortured economy’s invisible hand, the closest thing to a nemesis in Makers is Freddy Niedbalski, a British journalist covering the tech scene the same way tabloids cover celebrities. Beyond Lester and Perry, the supporting characters provide a rapid-fire delivery of different, sometimes entertaining and interesting ideas but many of their relationships feel forced.
Lester and Perry should be the core of the story. They present compelling aspects of maker culture and its madcap combination of nuts-and-bolts engineering with sheer artistry (a gang of car-driving Boogie Woogie Elmo dolls, a garden gnome that reminds passing family members to do chores, a household filing system based on RFID technology). Their friendship, buffeted by pressures stemming from the failures and successes of New Work, is the emotional momentum of the novel.
Their success with the ride is completely inadvertent and soon begins to irritate and perplex them. What began as an attempt to make a living with their art by the end of the novel has become instead a genuine struggle to continue to find a way to perform meaningful work. Unfortunately, this struggle never quite bubbles to the narrative surface of Makers, which spends its latter two thirds preoccupied with the ride (a vague and somewhat tricky concept) and the machinations of a Disney spin-off corporation, which simply isn’t very interesting.
All of the novel’s energy is generated in the first act where Doctorow’s love for the potential of maker ingenuity and disposable tech is infectious. He has a wonderful way of capturing the genuine but fleeting relationships people develop with bits of microchips and rare earth elements wrapped in moulded plastic, with technology that is familiar enough to make the near-future setting feel plausible.
Unfortunately the reader’s understanding of the larger world of Makers grows a bit slippery as the story progresses. Enticing details are offered in a throwaway manner, such as Perry’s brief encounter with a group of biohackers. (“One had gills. One glowed in the dark. One was orange and claimed to photosynthesize.”) The idea of Lester and Perry having bio-tech equivalents who play with stem cells instead of Elmo dolls is fun and I wished there had been more focus on this meeting and Perry’s reaction. But it’s never mentioned again.
Exploring such drastic social change, though, would probably undermine the novel’s moribund setting with its boundless supply of dead malls and desiccated neighbourhoods.
After all, wouldn’t there be all sorts of new markets and job opportunities created by gill implants?