the Little Red Reviewer

Makers by Cory Doctorow

Posted on: November 7, 2013

Makers, by Cory Doctorow

published in 2009

where I got it: purchased Print new, and downloaded the e-book

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I got this from the library in 2009 when it first came out, and I’ve been itching to reread it ever since, and finally, finally I found a paperback copy.  Makers is also the first book that I’ve read half through paper, and half on my Kindle. I’d read the print book at home, and read on my Kindle at work. Through a creative commons license, Makers (and all of Doctorow’s works) is available for free download through his website.  You might be thinking to yourself “why would he give his stuff away for free?”, and the answer, or at least part of it, is covered in Makers.

A few years from now in Florida,  two best friends found themselves in a garage, tinkering with an entire dump full of consumer goods, most still in the packaging.  Lester and Perry build silly robots and oversized calculators, they wire up a bunch of dancing Elmo dolls, they make ten new things every day.  They make just enough money from selling their unique inventions to keep the lights on and the 3-D printer filled with goop. Maker culture? these guys are living the dream.

Enter Suzanne Church, journalist. She’s been hired to be an “embedded” journalist with these guys, to help the rest of the country understand this amazing lifestyle business, of stripping the electronics from one thing to make another thing, of creating something because it’s fun, of not needing a factory or a board of directors or middle management to make a business work.  Thanks to Perry and Lester’s creativity, and Suzanne’s passionate blogging, “New Work” becomes the new trend, the new way to make a living. Entire swaths of the country leap on board, to grab hold of something that is constantly changing.

But that’s the just first few chapters. Doctorow crams more incredible ideas into each page of Makers than most writers put into an entire book.   Discussions in the workshop touch on everything from how society treats fat people to conspicuous consumption to old programming languages to cottage industries to why more women aren’t involved in tech fields, to everything, really.

Doctorow could have easily just written a story about Perry and Lester’s adventures in the new paradigm of New Work.  It would have made a super fun novel. But that’s the beauty of New Work – it is always changing, always evolving, the next idea is right on the horizon ready to be grabbed by eager hands. At that’s the genius of Cory Doctorow – Makers isn’t about what it’s about. It’s not about two dudes who make stuff and a journalist who writes about it. The characters and what happens to them is just a jumping off point.  Makers is about something much, much bigger, something slippery and right on the horizon.

After the New Work crash, the guys still need to make a living, and  Suzanne is still interesting in what they are doing. They still want to build stuff, they’ve got all these designs they pulled off the web, and they’ve got an abandoned WalMart. It’s time to build what they’ve been dreaming of, the thing they never had the space to build.

They build a ride.

A ride that is different every day.

For a nominal fee, visitors hop into a car and ride around the “exhibits” inside the WalMart, giving thumbs up or thumbs down towards anything they like or don’t like. All night long, the bots change the room around, removing things people didn’t like, 3-D printing more of what people did like.  The ride is surrounded by an Etsy-esque flea market, and as more people travel to The Ride from all over the country, it gains a cult following, and soon more rides show up in other cities, built from free plans.

When Mickey Mouse and other copyrighted images start showing up in the ride, and copied all over the country into the networked rides, Disney takes notice, and calls their lawyers. Perry and Lester never see it coming.

Our current business laws were not designed to deal with any of this.  LLCs, contracts, legal entities of all sorts, patent law, copyrights,  none of that works after an opensource revolution. Lester and Perry showed the makers of the world that openness was to their advantage. Share knowledge, share plans, share instructions, help everyone. When there are no owners, laws designed to protect the owners don’t work.

Once the plot gets going full force, things take a turn towards a darker side. During a riot, Perry is hit in the eye with a rubber bullet, an ex-Disney employee who comes to work for the guys is beaten to within in an inch of his life.  The corporate suits are the very, very bad guys, and the care free hackers are the good guys, the victims.  The Suits have power and lawyers and money, and the underdog hackers have nothing.

hey. wait a minute. is this a political book?

Yes. A little.  But it’s not *as* political as Doctorow’s other recent novels, like Pirate Cinema or Little Brother. If you’ve read those, you’ll see plenty of similarities in the books – how poverty is romanticized as easy living, how characters are gruesomely battered or humiliated, how the protagonists are told over and over again “this is how it is, this is how it has always been, this is how it will always be”, and the response is a glorious “No. it isn’t. Let me show you a new way”.

I am so very, very conflicted about this book. I love Perry and Lester, I want to meet them and buy them drinks and go on The Ride, and see their life. Makers was just as inspiring to me this time as it was the first time I read it. But four years and a few more Doctorow novels later, I can see it loud and clear when someone is preaching politics to me. I questioned the the romanticizing of shanty-town living, the silliness of the TSA doing body cavity searches for domestic flights and putting people through security again, after they got off the plane. I saw clear as day that Doctorow was showing Maker Culture as the good guys, and Corporate Suits as the villains, and that he wasn’t allowing much room for anyone who fell in between. That I felt pushed to choose a side (and to choose the side Doctorow wanted me to choose) rubbed me the wrong way, which often happens to a segment of readers when a book has an overt political message.

That said, Makers is a gorgeously unputdownable book, and political manifesto or no, you should simply just read it. Just because I noticed all those things doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, it just means I noticed them. you know?

Looking for an accessible gateway book into science fiction, Maker Culture, or the near future? This is it.  Looking for something that’s entertaining, educational, laugh out loud funny, and that will probably make you cry at the end? this is it.  Looking for something that follows no proscribed pattern, but stands up tall and says “No. Let me show you a new way of doing this.”? All this time, you’ve been looking for Makers.

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7 Responses to "Makers by Cory Doctorow"

I think I would like this – this probably sounds mental but in some ways it puts me in mind of Ready Player One – not sure why but the book just sprung to mind when I was reading your review.
I will go away and have a look for this!
Lynn :D

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This sounds so good! Even with the politics in it. And how I have I not ready any Cory Doctorow yet? That’s just unacceptable.

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especially since he offers most (maybe all?) as free download on his website. I do hope you give his books a try, they are SFnal, easy to read, insanely smart, and the man just writes damn cool stuff. :D

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[…] Makers by Cory Doctorow (littleredreviewer.wordpress.com) […]

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This sounded like a good title and I was excited to dig in, but the flimsy plot, wooden characters, and unbelievable socio-economic developments fail to serve. I found the “porn” scene particularly bizarre… competently done, I suppose, but unnecessary, uncalled for, and rather out of place in the underdeveloped novel around it. Occasional, ham-fisted nuggets of character-building dramatic sequences happen to the story, but these resemble bolt-on literary units rather than successfully setting the tone of the novel.The author seems like an intelligent guy with a deep appreciation for geek culture, but his character and idea presentation are more like Michael Crichton’s campy ain’t-we-clever formula than Neal Stephenson’s far more intriguing work. Some rare missteps jump out and molest suspension of disbelief as well, such as Doctorow’s statement that the Roosevelt administration spent the US out of the Great Depression revealing the unfortunate truth that the author has gaping blind spots in his understanding of economics and history.At this point the author seems more interesting than his work, and I hope his writing improves. This book will still do well with his fans, obviously, and true believers with an overdeveloped suspension of disbelief ready to latch onto generic celebrations of geek culture. But for something more compelling in this vein I suggest Neal Stephenson if you haven’t already dived into that ocean.

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Doctorow has put out plenty since the time of Makers, most notably Little Brother and Pirate Cinema, both which got a lot of attention. He’s definitely better at jamming tons of interesting ideas into his books than putting in totally and completely accurate history and politics. oh well. Seems to be with Doctorow that I like his older stuff the best.

I’ve read a bit of Stephenson, had a similar experience as with Doctorow, that i liked his older stuff better. Loved Zodiac, enjoyed Crytonomicon, really really enjoyed the first Baroque Cycle book, and then years later Reamde didn’t do much for me.

thanks for commenting!

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I had a lot of fun with this book. In some ways, it struck home because my little corner of the world is full of people living near the poverty line (one side or the other) and the make stuff. Mostly they make stuff for themselves, their homes, their friends and family. But someone who can’t cobble together an impromptu drain or window cover or dolly wheel is going to have a hard time.

I totally skimmed over the political agenda. Yes, it was there and once I acknowledged it, it was easy to ignore. And since Kettlewell and Chen were buddies with Lester and Perry I didn’t feel like I had to choose a side.

I was fascinated by the fatkins culture. Did you catch that bit about kids’ games that encourage kids to consume mass calories, and not to worry about it because they can just get the fatkins treatment? shudder

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