"Know what the trouble is, Brucie? We used to make shit in this country. Build shit. (Sigh.) Now we just put our hand in the next guy's pocket." - union leader Frank Sobotka in The Wire;screenplay by George Pelecanos
It's only because computers and the Internet drastically changed the world in my lifetime that I can now easily summon up information as obscure as "the name of the man who wrote the best lines uttered on television in 2003." And Mr. Pelecanos, a brilliant novelist as well as screenwriter, deserves to be credited for nailing something fundamental in so few words. It's been said there are only three sorts of people: makers, takers, and fakers. If he is correct, and we have stopped making things ... what does that make us? And where are we supposed to go from here? How are we to repair a stumbling economy that doesn't really make anything but ever-more imaginary money? Should we even try?
Cory Doctorow is a writer both qualified and eager to answer. Fourteen years younger than Mr. Pelecanos, he's so forward-thinking most authorities cite him as the first person ever to blog his own birth - in advance. (A free download, of course.)
Unsurprisingly, he's far more sanguine about the near future in Makers than Frank Sobotka or his creator. He feels they have it backwards, that there are more and better makers among us than ever before. It's just that the things they make are largely invisible to the present economic system, as resistant to monetization as the Internet itself. But soon venture capitalists may wise up and begin micro-investing in small high-tech startups, and a whole new kind of economy might appear almost overnight.
Which doesn't mean it can't crash and burn just as quickly, of course.
But wait until you see the next big breakthrough technology that will come along to help: "3-D printers" that can manufacture from raw materials pretty much anything that can be adequately described. Suddenly every bright teenager with a neat idea will be able to compete on a level playing field with Disney or Microsoft ... and with each other, as well.
Makers took me places I'd never been and would not have thought of visiting, and I had a wonderful time there
The results may be a bit chaotic, especially at first - even supercomputers may not be enough to comprehend and co-ordinate a planetary economy made up of many millions of cottage industries and Mom-and-Pop businesses. But at least, Makers suggests, it's likely to become a kinder, gentler, more humane economy, since even bright teenagers have more capacity for empathy than corporations. In a system that values and rewards intelligence, integrity, creativity and willingness to change, there will be little place for the creeps, cowards and congenital kleptomaniacs who controlled the old economy.
Since he's naturally aiming more at his own generation than at 1960s survivors in their sixties like me, the industry Doctorow chooses to focus on is ... well, Fun. Computer games; thrill rides; neat toys; cool gear; living anime; pop culture writ large. Disney done right, for example: a Disneyland capable of overnight evolution. He fills his book with people of his time: bloggers, hi-tech boom-and-bust surfers, hackers, nerds, visionary saints. What John Brunner called the shockwave riders, artists in arts that do not yet have names, businessmen in businesses yet to be invented. He brings them vividly to life, shows why he loves them and gives them, at last, a common goal. Though their struggles are sometimes wrenching, about the only real villain in sight is a nihilist blogger.
In all his work, Pelecanos yearns for a vanishing past he found more agreeable; in his, Doctorow yearns just as palpably for the arrival of a future we can make more agreeable. Those viewpoints are more compatible than you might think.
Doctorow, for instance, can focus on the future and still keep one eye firmly on the past. Makers contains numerous scenes of great emotional impact, but for me the most powerful one comes when a middle-aged multibillionaire speaks five unexpected words to a young man so thoroughly countercultural that his name is Death Waits. Those words nostalgically invoke an iconic song that once changed my life, and which - Google informs me almost instantaneously - David Crosby first released (on vinyl only) on March 11, 1970 ... 16 months before Cory Doctorow was born.
Makers took me places I'd never been and would not have thought of visiting, and I had a wonderful time there. It introduced me to some really interesting strangers and involved me in their remarkable lives. It painted a persuasive picture of a better tomorrow I've been having more and more trouble imagining lately. And it was a lot of fun. It gives me renewed hope for the future, of both written science fiction and the world.
Writer/podcaster Spider Robinson's latest novel, Very Hard Choices, is set in present-day British Columbia.