Everyone either knows, of can imagine, how science-fiction got its start. At some point someone said ‘what if novels but science’, and then she wrote Frankenstein. That’s not entirely accurate, but good enough. This simple idea dragged the genre out for some time, but for some reason people were only really ever focusing on the hard sciences. Around the 1960’s some people realized that they could write science-fiction about the soft sciences as well. This led to some pretty good books, and some pretty bad ones as well. But there is a soft science that doesn’t seem to get touched upon as much as others – Economics. The first person I ever heard make this observation was Samuel R Delany, and I have been paying attention to the field since I read that looking to see to what extent it is true. However, there have been a lot of books that were about capitalism, overtly or otherwise (think of the works of H.G. Wells).
I wouldn’t say that Cory Doctorow’s Makers is about either Economics or Capitalism. But I would say that both of those are pretty fundamental to the story. The novel focus on a group of diverse characters (a journalist, some inventors, venture capitalists) who find themselves with more success than they could ever imagine with a technology that transforms the country. Briefly. Then things seem to fall apart again.
But the setting was as important for me as the story itself. The story largely takes place in the ruins of Florida, in an America that seems very worse for wear, at least economically speaking. The middle class is at best merely hinted at, but you get a lot of shots of people not doing terribly well. Much of it was the most horrifying thing I read in a book in some time, and it was why I brought up Economics to begin with. This story is principally about economics and its effects on society. That the society seems to start in such a bleak place in this novel, and doesn’t really seem to improve things all that much, is pretty damning. Towards the end of the story, there is a legal conflict between the main characters and some largely unseen copyright holders that mirrors what happened in the 90’s and 00’s with peer-to-peer technology so much that you can’t help but accuse Doctorow of not only moralizing, but of not being subtle about his moralizing. But it does seem to encapsulate a lot about the economic old guard vs the new.
As a concluding thought, while this is only the second novel of Doctorow’s that I have read, I am getting the impression that he has a larger than normal distaste for the Disney corporation. Disney (or at least, some Disney employees) end up being some of the central antagonists of the story. If you read between the lines, you get the impression that capitalism is also a central antagonist, or at least capitalism in a big plastic mouse mask. But Doctorow manages to give some of the corporatist / capitalist characters a fair bit of humanity as well, reminding us that we are all in this together, at least somewhat.