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Cory Doctorow

©2005 Bart Nagel

Ever feel like your computer is an extension of your body? Or that real life is slowly migrating into the virtual realm? In Cory Doctorow's latest novel, For the Win, teens' real identities no longer trump their online lives.

Doctorow, originally from Toronto, is an expert in all things Internet. He's not only a bestselling author, but also co-editor of the beloved Boing Boing news site, and was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. This novel cements his place as a thinking science-fiction writer alongside greats like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson.

This is an ambitious tale featuring a dozen tech-savvy narrators from around the world who all make their livelihoods playing and scamming video games. The cumulative effect of so many interwoven stories is that new ones feel like a layer of the previous. While each of the narrators could have easily been the star of his or her own book, they are instead strands of Doctorow's global web, proving that everything's interconnected. Halfway into the book, it's actually very difficult to keep the individual threads separate.

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Mala, a.k.a. General Robotwallah, lives in a Mumbai slum and commands an army of kids who raid video games for gold to pay off an extorting fat-cat boss. Leonard Goldberg in Los Angeles goes by the moniker "Wei-Dong" online, and spends so much time accumulating power and wealth in video games that his parents try to send him to military school. Ashok, an Indian economist and union organizer, is trying to make old-school labour unions support an emerging Internet movement. And Connor Prikkel works for Coca-Cola Games, which owns the online worlds in which these teens exist, and analyzes systems to predict anomalous usage.

The best sections are those where the reader gets caught up in characters' worlds, motivations and reactions to real distress. A series of brutal scenes between Mala and her former "army lieutenant" turned union organizer, Yasmin, are fraught with complexity. Scenes featuring real-life workers demanding better conditions for themselves leave you gasping for air. Unfortunately, as soon as one thread really gets going, the book flips to another one.

For the Win is quite dense for the teen market, and runs an impressive 475 pages. The reader isn't even introduced to a couple of the narrators until almost 300 pages in. A good chunk probably could have been trimmed down by removing excessive in-game battles and narrator-less economics lessons, which overwhelm and tend to lose the reader. But the over-the-top politico-speak is delicious: "They came for the workers in the game and in the real world, a co-ordinated assault that left Big Sister Nor's organization in tatters."

It's also not too much of a surprise, given that the author himself describes this as "a young adult novel about macroeconomics, video games and the labour movement." The crescendo is a series of strikes and protests - online and in the streets - which result in the gamers having to decide just how far they'll go to help each other.

Perhaps the message is that video games mimic life. And life is a game. Behind some of the dwarves and soldiers and wizards in massively popular multiplayer online games are real people. And real people in poor countries suffer from unequal distribution of wealth and violent repression. Doctorow actually hopes that after reading For the Win, youth will question: "Why are some people so poor and others so rich?"

Emily Pohl-Weary is an award-winning Toronto author who spends a little too much time mining virtual gold on her PS3.

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