I finished Cory Doctorow’s latest novel last Sunday, at a commercial break during the season finale of Mad Men. Notable for portraying a Don Draper losing his cool, one scene has the frustrated ad man shouting:
“I want to work! I want to build something of my own.”
In the context of having just read Makers, that’s a telling line. But I’ll explain—
Twice the size of Eastern Standard Tribe and absolutely dwarfing his first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Makers is an epic of economics, technology, corporate psychopaths, and people who “just want to make things.” It isn’t Homer, but there’s definitely something Greek about the fates of a number of central characters—fatal flaws, tragic irony, all that—and by the time I logged out of Preview and filed Makers away on my desktop with the other PDF copies of Doctorow’s books, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, but I was sure that Doctorow had succeeded in capturing and articulating something significant in the culture.
Makers tells the story of the birth and untimely death of an economic movement reporter/blogger (and initial protagonist) Suzanne Church calls the “New Work,” aimed at turning ancient, lumbering “dinocorps” into flexible teams of innovators. In the words of Tjan, one of the “suits” who works with the original New Work team of Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks (an eccentric pair of hacker-inventors who act more like an old married couple than a business partnership), the purpose of the New Work is this:
“We’re going to create a new class of artisans who can change careers every 10 months, inventing new jobs that hadn’t been imagined a year before.”
And when reporter Suzanne questions the stability of that sort of system, he argues passionately for his idea—
“That’s a functional market,” he insists, going on to deliver a free market sermon that made me want to stand and applaud:
“If you want to make a big profit, you’ve got to start over again, invent something new, and milk it for all you can before the first imitator shows up. The more this happens, the cheaper and better everything gets. It’s how we got here, you see. It’s what the system is for. We’re approaching a kind of pure and perfect state now, with competition and invention getting easier and easier—it’s producing a kind of superabundance that’s amazing to watch. My kids just surf it, make themselves over every six months, learn a new interface, a new entertainment, you name it. Change-surfers…”
It doesn’t sound like stereotypical science fiction—alien invasion, cyborgs, and omnipresent governments of a nightmarish dystopia. It’s our world, the world today, with bloggers outstripping traditional print papers and corporate bureaucracy doing its best to smother fluid, mobile models of small groups of innovators under the weight of its own inertia. It’s at once the “weirdest and best time the world has yet seen.”
But Dickens and faux-Chinese proverbs will have out—if it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and everyone knows that to live in interesting times is a curse.
That’s something Doctorow’s characters learn the hard way.
For the sake of saving the plot for the readers, I’ll just say this: the brilliant whirlwind of creativity we find in Part I isn’t the end—Parts II and III take us from this dizzying height to a doldrums of frustration and stagnation.
It’s what our high school English teachers would call a “chiasmus,” a crossing of paths or slopes or fate lines, with characters selling-out or buying in or suing or countersuing each other so fast that I can’t tell who to root for anymore.
But if one thing is clear, it’s this:
The title of the novel could apply to literally every character in the story, all of whom express at some point or another a deep desire to make/do/create. But their hands are tied by red tape, or they’re strangled by lawsuits, or their fate lines are snipped off with the shears of the bureaucratic Atropos: inertia.
“All he wanted was to have good ideas and make them happen,” Doctorow writes of Sammy Page, a Disney dinocorps executive trapped by the rigid structure of the company. “Basically, he wanted to be Lester.”
But the politics engulfing Lester’s once-happy life as an inventor selling his creations on eBay make it so that even Lester can’t “be Lester”: “Why couldn’t he just make stuff and do stuff? Why did it always have to turn into a plan for world domination?” he thinks.
Sound something like Don Draper? (or maybe Howard Roark?)
Cory Doctorow writes on his blog that his science fiction represents “radical presentism,” a prediction of the present rather than the future—meaning that in Makers it’s our world today he’s looking at, probably the reason the novel’s so unnerving. Doctorow creates a cognate of modern America, a place in a frenzy of invention and creativity—until the idealism dies. The tragedy is that the frustrated desire to just make stuff doesn’t die along with it.
AMC, at least, is catching on to the cultural drift—if a little after Doctorow—and I have to say, the Mad Men finale is a bit more optimistic than the fifteen-years-later epilogue of Doctorow’s epic. The smaller, more flexible new agency of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price, after all, is staffed completely by makers.