Review: For the Win by Cory Doctorow

I bumped this review up the list a little since the book has just hit the shelves here in the UK. I know it has because I put it there myself, two days ago.

Cory Doctorow is an author I’ve been meaning to read for a while: the blurbs all appeal to me, I hear good things and I like what I know of his ideas (and ideals). So when reading this book came up in the course of my work (in the line, as it was, for our monthly pick) I couldn’t help but look forward to it, but not without a little trepidation. I have a habit of picking the wrong book by which to sample an author, often because i go with the newest, and not the classic, or the first, before the author has truly come into his own. And, well… to the review!

For the Win by Cory Doctorow

For the Win by Cory Doctorow - coverLet’s start with the obvious – Doctorow is well-versed in the lore of the internets. Check out the title. FTW is an acronym you will find liberally scattered across bulletin boards, blogs, social networking sites… in fact, all across the whole world wide web. And that’s the point, the title isn’t just there to appeal to us geeks; this is a novel about the web, about the games people play there, about the money made in the games and the people who play them, people from across the whole wide world. And it’s a book about winning.

Doctorow understands the internet, he sees its importance the way a lot of people don’t yet. And when I say a lot of people I primarily mean people in power, and the people who listen to them unquestioningly. But the great thing about the internet is that as it becomes increasingly easier to access, and as access becomes more wide spread, the people who are willing to ask the questions, to speak out, can reach more people and so the unquestioning majority is lessening day by day (it’s nice to think this is the case, anyway).

Now there are many variations on SF, and I don’t know that FTW is really science fiction in any traditional sense, it feels too real, it feels too now. Handily, however, SF is the multi-tool of acronyms, and it can also mean speculative fiction. And that’s exactly what is going on here, this is a speculation on tomorrow, made by someone with full access to the facts of today.

Anyone who has gamed online in a MMO of any sort will have come across gold farmers, or rather, the Dellboy end of the operation, spamming public chat with links to gold for money. It’s a plague, it’s a nuisance, it’s a legitimate business tactic. It’s not something you really think about beyond the nuisance angle, the people who don’t play the game, the people who, literally, farm it for in-game goods they can sell for real world cash. Except Doctorow does think beyond that, he humanises that which is so easily demonised, kids trying to earn some money, to survive.

Gold farming is the new sweat shop enterprise of the twenty-first century. A new breed of child labour we can call our own. This is real, Google it.

So, how do you campaign for better rights when your workplace is the internet? You can’t blockade your workplace, because your employer will just log on somewhere else with some new kids who want the money just as much as you do. But this is the internet, and they might be able to get onto it from anywhere, but you can also use it to talk to anyone. The biggest part of the internet is community, bringing people together, for a cause. Whether that cause be kittens, or science fiction, or workers’ rights. Of course, people have fought for their rights before, and this is where FTW borrows from the past; we know how these fights can go and Doctorow uses that past to bring an edge of realism, an edge of hard fact to the events that unfold. Now that may sound pretty heavy, but FTW keeps that in check, it is as readable and entertaining as its themes are serious. Harsh in places, but light when it needs to be.

The characters are believable and deep, complex; they are fallable, likeable and sometimes despisable, and FTW doesn’t offer simple redemption or punishment, but satisfying and real conclusions for each of them. They are from all around the world, but then that’s the beauty of the internet, paths can cross without either person needing to leave their chair and Doctorow handles the multiple cultural and linguistic collisions well. With all its characters, FTW is a multiple strand story; reminiscent of Gibson, except that not only do the plots all come together well at the end, in a satisfying way, but the book actually feels finished rather than the traditional cyberpunk glitch of just running out of steam.

Part of the book is, necessarily, the economics about which these worlds revolve, there’s a lot of money in play and some of the plot is entangled in the intricacies of markets and dealing. Unfortunately that does mean that sometimes the book devolves into an economics lecture, it’s often dressed up in an interaction between a more knowledgeable character and one less so, but the fabric is thin, the disguise is weak. It’s the book’s single shortcoming in my opinion, and it isn’t a bad one. As I say, it is necessary to the plot to know a little about how these things work, so it’s not something I begrudge Doctorow, but it is there, and it does intrude. Particularly in the last instance where the story is accelerating, the climax approaching… and there it is again, unnecessarily I think just that last time, almost a recap just to make sure we’re following, and it does trip you as you’re rushing excitedly to the end.

Beware of the economics, but do read For The Win. It’s a great book, a really great book. It isn’t typical sci fi by a long shot (even if there are mecha, zombies, a twisted wonderland and a mushroom kingdom, albeit in game worlds) but it is about the future (as near as that might actually be). FTW is very intelligent without making you feel stupid; the characters are real and the plot is well-structured and well-executed; it’s touching in places but brutal too (when necessary), and it can be exhilarating.

This is a story about the real world and about the internet, about how the two are inextricably entwined and how an action in one world has inevitable repercussions in the other. Anyone who has spent any time playing MMOs should read this, and anyone who realises just what a big part of our future the internet is. In fact, anyone who likes an interesting, gripping, relevant story should read this.

One Response to “Review: For the Win by Cory Doctorow”

  1. I have only read one of Cory Doctorow’s, and it was ‘Someone comes to town, someone leaves town’. Imo, it could not be described as SF. It was modern fantasy, and yet, a lot of it revolved around use of the Internet. More specifically, the ability to access it, the importance of this human right (as it is genuinely considered) and how to bring it to the masses. It was clear from that novel that Doctorow is very comfortable in this area. That he has personal experience to draw from. Personal experience is invaluable when creating a character with whom one can identify with. Even when that character’s family is made of up of inanimate objects (go read Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town to see what I mean).

    On the subject of gold farming, there is a fascinating documentary called Second Skin, which (amongst other things MMORPG related) visits some gold farmers, and shows their working environment. It’s really rather interesting.

    I am glad that Doctorow’s other novels are potentially as compelling as the one that I have previously read, and aside from the fact that the title has pretty much already won me over (I’m easy to please), I look forward to checking this out soon.

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