Monday, 27 September 2010

For the Win by Cory Doctorow

Lowdown: Gamers of the world unite to fight for their rights.
I have been following Cory Doctorow’s adventures over the web for a while now. Since we first met at his blog Boing Boing (a blog that happens to be one of the world’s most popular), Doctorow has quickly established himself as a guy that thinks like me and happens to think about many of the things I find myself pondering about. It was just a question of time before I got to read one of his books, and that time came when I finally put my hands on an ebook reader. Why is that? Simply because Doctorow stands up to his words of criticism concerning copyright laws and offers electronic copies of all his books, for free (under a Creative Commons license), on his website here. Of his books, I chose the young adult (YA, as in older teens) title For the Win to start my Doctorow career with for the sole reason it is his latest.
For the Win fits its YA aspirations like a gas pedal fits a Formula 1 car. It is a book about gamers, and it tells a fictional story that could take place as of tomorrow on how individual gamers from all over the world and under all sorts of circumstances unite in order to fight for their rights, rights which a collection of oppressors hold back from them through sheer greed. Our heroes range from game miners in China, playing to make a living, through groups of kids in India for whom gaming was ticket out of the mundane miseries of slum life, to what we would normally call spoiled teens in the USA who consider gaming a legitimate future career. On the other side are their oppressors: greedy bosses, game running companies oblivious or indifferent to the injustices committed in their domain, and governments that don’t care much about the rights of their people when those rights might clash with productivity.
I found For the Win very cleverly written for its target audience. It’s an extremely thrilling read, for a start; one of those books I found myself totally immersed in and hard to let go of when duty (or sleep) called. It’s well written, too: Characters are well developed, they fade in and out of the story smoothly. Overall, this is not a romantic book but rather a realistic one, a quality that is sadly missing from most of the work aimed at young adults. Second, it touches on many things that would be dear to contemporary teens: video games, finding their own place in the world, dealing with adults. Third, For the Win is not just an exciting read, it is also a valuable teaching tool: Doctorow uses the premises of gaming money to expand the discussion into the workings of the global financial market. He does so to quite a detailed level, providing explanations in a manner that is easy to understand given the complexity of the subject matter. I have found the tutoring element of For the Win to be exceptionally good, so much so that I can say it added a lot to my own understanding of world finances (and I haven’t been a young adult for a long time now). For the Win is worth reading for its educational benefits alone, especially if you do not consider yourself an authority on matters of finance.
There are disadvantages to Doctorow’s appeal to younger audiences, though. Language wise, For the Win is very simple. Although it mixes lots of foreign phrases into its melting pot, as suits a book taking place all over the world, this book is no sophisticated poetry. Usually, I complain about books that are too hard to understand; this time around I will complain that the book’s language made me yearn for something a bit more poetic.
Doctorow goes one step further with his youth appeal. He uses what I would consider cheap tricks to stand characters out: his cooler characters, unlike their parents, don’t wear watches; they just use the mobile phones they carry on them anyway. Fair enough, but I’ve seen this trick used before, so by the time For the Win presented it to me trying to make a character sound cool by telling me it doesn’t wear a watch was decidedly uncool.
I’m digressing here, though. The most important thing about For the Win, other than its economy lessons, is the agenda it pushes into its reader like a bulldozer with its pedal on the metal. This agenda is developed slowly; at first Doctorow explains through his characters why the virtual world with its virtual money matters in the real world. As we move on to the inevitable conclusion that the web gamers of the world should unite in order to make their stand in the global world of finances, Doctorow’s very left wing and liberal agendas become crystal clear. The feeling of togetherness you get when reading a book involving heroes from different backgrounds coming at you from all over the world certainly helps establish that left wing solidarity. And you know what? I so totally agree with the guy I could give him a metaphorical kiss. I can only feel sorry for myself not having encountered a writer like Doctorow and books like For the Win when I was a young adult, back in my ancient past, because having such a book at my disposal would have meant the formalization of the opinions I now hold concerning world politics could have taken place through a much easier process and much earlier than it did. I can hear right wingers and addicted capitalists out there complaining that Doctorow uses brainwashing techniques, but such arguments are easily countered: it is very clear Doctorow deals with facts and not speculation, and the biggest evidence is on his side – the GFC.
If there is one thing I have established with regards to Cory Doctorow by now is that he is going to play a major role in my life as I know it. Just like Richard Dawkins is helping me learn more about science through his books and helps me formalize my views on matters such as religion, Cory Doctorow is there to acquaint me with the world of politics while helping me formalize my opinions on matters of civil libertinism. In my book, such services are amongst the most important services a person can provide. Yes, you could say I hold Cory Doctorow in the highest regard.
Overall: For the Win is the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Doctorow and I. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Closing anecdote: I met Cory Doctorow at the recent AussieCon4 science fiction conference in Melbourne. I used the opportunity to purchase a physical copy of another book of his just so he could sign it (things were so hectic he actually signed it with a personal dedication before I was even remotely close to paying for the book). That meeting took place a day after I received my Kindle, and my experience thus far indicates that physical copy would remain unread. I will continue reading Doctorow through downloaded ebooks instead.


Uri said...

It seems I’m always one Doctorow behind you. You just finished Pirate Cinema, and I just read For The Win.

One thing first: you complain that YA books are sadly lacking in realism. I’m not sure what’s your basis for that. As far as I can tell, your recent non-Doctorow YA reading is two Ranger Apprentice books, and Ship Breaker (have you read The Drowned Cities? I can’t remember). The first two are aimed at a much younger age, and I can’t imagine that anything by Bacigalupi is not real enough for you.

For The Win – I liked the book a lot. It brought back some fond WoW memories, and of course, every time I picked up the kindle, I was reminded of our Sydney trip. I didn’t find it as captivating as you had – the middle third passed quite slowly, and I frequently checked the % progress – but I agree on the educational part.

I wasn’t quite convinced by labor unions as the answer to all things bad. If anything, it reminded me of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead that were equally emphatic about those same unions being the root of all evil.

My main problem with the book was that it was a little too depressing. I had a similar issue with Little Brother, but there the horrible parts (horrible in terms of what happens to the characters) were mainly at the beginning – something really, really bad happens, and then the rest of the book is spent overcoming it. With For The Win, the balance is different: bad things keep happening all the time.

Also, it’s a specific type of bad thing I’m sensitive to. One of my least favorite scenes was when Connor remembered an experiment he was once in (and the ‘evil’ girl there was reading The Fountainhead). Doctorow describes quite well that moment when the social contract is broken, and victim is just helpless. I’ve seen this enough in real life not to enjoy reading about it. And I’m not quite comfortable with how the good guys end up winning.

So while I already have Pirate Cinema, I’m not in any hurry to read it.

One last thing – I didn’t feel at all that Doctorow was using simple language, and as you’ve said, it’s a really strange complaint coming from you.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I took my time to resurrect my thoughts on For the Win, so here goes. Careful, don’t step on the leftovers of my memories:
1. YA books’ realism: I think I was relating to the very precise way the mechanisms of economics are described. That is, YA books tend to avoid such levels of detail. YA is not alone, actually: most books gloss over details that could easily bore readers when not described too well; Doctorow sails through.
2. Trade unions: I won’t stoop to comment on Atlas Shrugged, but I will say I have mixed feelings about them. My personal experience with them is yet to provide an example for them not being a bully like bunch of chauvinistic men with too much power on their hands. However, let us not forget that it is because of unions that we have a five day working week and an eight hour workday; it sure wasn’t the gracious nature of the companies and the owners that got us there.
In Doctorow’s case, he openly admits to being influenced by his father’s communism.
3. Doctorow’s language: Whenever I read him it feels as if it is something I could have written myself (as opposed to, say, Scalzi, who is much craftier than I could ever be). I wonder, if some sort of a concordance could be made of Doctorow’s book, it would find he uses fewer words than his peers. Anyway, I can’t say I was properly “complaining” about it.
4. Depressing nature: I won’t argue with you there. I also don’t remember anything about a Connor or anyone else reading a book while social contracts are shredded. However, I will mention Pirate Cinema is significantly more cheerful. Go and read it. Now.