Please indulge me in a utopian fantasy for a moment.
If I were a billionaire, I would purchase one copy of The New Cool for every politician in the United States, from Podunk town council member to POTUS. Then, employing the arcane superpowers which Glenn Beck imagines George Soros possesses, I would force each politico to put aside any and all tasks, no matter how vital, until they had read and deeply internalized Bascomb’s inspiring narrative.
Simultaneously, I would commission a large Hollywood movie studio and famous director to film the book with a stellar cast, just as it stands. Viewing this film would be mandatory for the nation’s entire populace above kindergarten age (I’m catering to the pre- or non-literate crowd here, who might balk at reading an entire book). Watching the film would be enforced by large fines for non-attendance, and abetted by free refreshments from the concession stand.
At this point, I believe, the Revolution would be summarily accomplished. This country would be back on its feet in a year, more prosperous, free and enlightened than ever, and we would all be riding around in anti-gravity cars that cost one week’s salary for the average worker—and that median weekly paycheck would amount to ten thousand dollars, after taxes.
Okay, so maybe The New Cool could not actually bring about such a national paradigm shift. But it definitely inspires such dreams.
The real-life tale here is an account of one school’s participation in the annual FIRST robotics competition created in 1992 by inventor Dean Kamen, he of Segway fame. The place for most of the action is the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy in Goleta, California. (After the bot is built, the scene switches to on-the-road venues.) The teacher in charge is Amir Abo-Shaeer. And his crew consists of ten students who together form a vivid, variegated tapestry of intelligence, motivation, ethnicity, class and aspiration.
Bascomb animates his cast with a novelist’s verve and deftness. They all leap off the page, fully rendered and recognizable. The dialogue is crisp and realistic, economical of purpose, and with a feel of first-hand reportage. The story’s suspense, while pre-formed due to the nature of the deadlines and the uncertainty of the contest, is propelled with efficient, page-turning celerity. Likewise, Bascomb’s scene-painting conveys the tight quarters of the “build room” and other locales with photo-realism.
While masterfully immersing us in the nitty-gritty particulars of the robot construction and the interpersonal dynamics of the crew, Bascomb never looses sight of the larger goals and lessons of the project. Thus, we can at one point be deep into the robot’s guts, like this: “During a systems check, Gabe had not disabled the motor that turned the turret. The motor had powered up unexpectedly and rotated way past its limit point. This caused the belt that turned the lazy Susan to tear away from the rivets holding it in place and simultaneously ruined the sensor that gauged the turret’s position.” And at another instance, we can pull back for the long view: “The real purpose of this experience was to show them the kind of focus and hard struggle that it took to create something extraordinary. Teaching from a book or for a test would never show them how to obtain the best out of themselves. Nights like this one would.”
The New Cool is at once ultramodern and quintessential vintage Americana. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting of a Soapbox Derby, as novelized by Cory Doctorow, an “Edisonade” for the Maker magazine generation.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.