Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Review: Makers

I finished Cory Doctorow's Makers a few days back but haven't had time to post a review until just now, which has given me some time to mull it over a bit before doing so.


On the surface, Makers is Doctorow revisiting familiar territory: Distopian steampunk sci-fi, this time around the premise of the collision between personal fabrication and incumbent industry (something he already visited in short form in After the Siege).

The book has more to it than just this.

It's partly a parable of Lessig's Free Culture argument [Creativity and innovation always build on the past; The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it; Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past; Ours is less and less a free society].

It's also a story about Creative Destruction, and about how our legal and governmental systems impede it.

Mix in notes of Doctorow' attachment (and I'm guessing love-hate feelings) for Disney (which he also visited in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom), an opinion on working at large corporations (the passage on page 403 rang so true it was painful to read), a commentary about shanty towns and peoples ability to govern themselves, some thoughts on obesity, consumerism, and other facets of the decline of American society, and you have the makings of a fun and thought provoking novel.

[One note: As some of the Amazon reviews note, there's a couple of pretty graphic sex scenes in the book. Not a big deal for adults, but for those that might have read Little Brother and might think this suitable to give to kids for reading, well, buyer beware. Personally, I think it's fine for a writer to stretch his wings a little as I think he's done here. I was surprised by the vitriole in some of those Amazon reviews. On another related note: It's kind of weird reading really graphic stuff like that written by a guy I've had dinner with a couple times :-/. ]

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

re: pg 403. Could you post a quote of this, maybe even just a line that could be used for searching?

There are so many different formats of the book - html, pdf, deadtree - that 403 doesn't function as a universal quote locator anymore.

kim said...

Here's the passage. One character talking to another about his work at a big company, and about missing the environment at a small company:
---
“You miss it, huh?”

“Sometimes.”

“You said working here—”

“Working here. They said that they wanted me to come in and help them turn the place around, help them reinvent themselves. Be nimble. Shake things up. But it’s like wrestling a tar-baby. You push, you get stuck. You argue for something better and they tell you to write a report, then no one reads the report. You try to get an experimental service running and no one will reconfigure the firewall. Turn the place around?” He snorted. “It’s like turning around a battleship by tapping it on the nose with a toothpick.”

“I hate working with assholes.”

“They’re not assholes, that’s the thing, Perry. They’re some really smart people. They’re nice. We have them over for dinner. They’re fun to eat lunch with. The thing is, every single one of them feels the same way I do. They all have cool shit they want to do, but they can’t do it.”

“Why?”

“It’s like an emergent property. Once you get a lot of people under one roof, the emergent property seems to be crap. No matter how great the people are, no matter how wonderful their individual ideas are, the net effect is shit.”

“Reminds me of reliability calculation. Like if you take two components that are 90 percent reliable and use them in a design, the outcome is 90 percent of 90 percent—81 percent. Keep adding 90 percent reliable components and you’ll have something that explodes before you get it out of the factory.

“Maybe people are like that. If you’re 90 percent non-bogus and ten percent bogus, and you work with someone else who’s 90 percent non-bogus, you end up with a team that’s 81 percent non-bogus.”

“I like that model. It makes intuitive sense. But fuck me, it’s depressing. It says that all we do is magnify each others’ flaws.”

“Well, maybe that’s the case. Maybe flaws are multiplicative.”

“So what are virtues?”

“Additive, maybe. A shallower curve.”

“That’d be an interesting research project, if you could come up with some quantitative measurements.”