I would imagine that for any writer to be repeatedly referenced in public as the last, best hope of the future of genre fiction must feel like an extremely heavy and wearisome burden to carry — rather like the alluringly poisoned mantle worn by Barack Obama right up to his actual election. The sensations experienced by the unfortunate icon are probably a mix of those of Shakespeare’s King Henry IV in his speech that culminates with the line “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and those of the clichéd veteran gunslinger constantly watching over his shoulder for an even Younger Hombre ready to challenge him.
Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem have both undergone this unasked-for savior treatment, with regards to mainstream/slipstream literature — to the point where they were parodied in comic strip form as the only superheroes who could rescue the fair maiden fiction from extinction. But contemporary fiction is so sprawling and diffuse that there are always additional foci of hope, and a Dave Eggers or a Zadie Smith can be summoned by signal-watch to share the duties, acting as a kind of Justice League of Literature.
In science fiction, however, the pool of hip, youthful, happening, fresh-eyed, keen-witted, media-savvy, broad-shouldered, accomplished, extroverted and talented writers, blending both revolution and tradition in just the right proportions, is noticeably shallow at the moment. There’s Neal Stephenson, but he’s rather too distant and hermetic, with a low profile and unfathomable, mutating goals. So these days, when pundits and fans alarmed over the prospect of SF’s demise want to point to a knight in shining prose who can defeat all the dragons besetting the genre and guide it to the Shining City on the Hill, they invariably point to Cory Doctorow.
Not that Doctorow’s comandeering of the spotlight is due only to the absence of rivals from the stage. He’d stand out even if suitable candidates were thronged thick as locusts, he’s that good. And despite all the generally unsolicited attention and hype and expectations, Doctorow remains, to all outward appearances, an optimistic, sanguine, hyperactive, enthusiastic, altruistic, whimsical whirlwind of creativity. This is, after all, a man who, with rock-star audacity, chose to name his firstborn child Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow.
It’s enough to make you think he really is the Chosen One.
Doctorow’s new novel, Makers, will certainly confirm his high standing in the forefront of a fresh school of science fiction that is attempting simultaneously to honor the long lineage of its speculative ancestors and to reclothe all the old tropes in ultramodern dress, tossing out shabby conceits and shopworn attitudes.
Unlike Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem, who express a reverence for pulp and pop culture that extends only to its classiest elements — homages to Philip K. Dick are fine, but any reference to A. E. van Vogt, a predecessor whom Dick admired and learned from, is considered déclassé — Doctorow unabashedly embraces the totality of science fiction, working hard to extricate its core storytelling virtues, predictive techniques and accumulated wisdom from the garish debris of lazy hacks that encumber the medium’s ability to offer a clear and interesting vision of the future.
Symbolically befitting its subject matter, Makers incorporates bits and pieces from almost every era of SF’s history into its innovative bricolage, along with a journalistic topicality and trendiness. The result is a synthesis that is at once traditional and revolutionary, an upgrade or rebirth of the genre that still leaves the product recognizable yet improved. But before identifying some of the historical components of this sparkling new machine, a precis of its plot.
The time is the day after tomorrow. America’s economy is in shambles, hollowed out, leaving millions in poverty and homeless. Suzanne Church is a fiesty middle-aged journalist who pokes around in odd corners of the cultural wreckage. At the behest of eccentric millionaire Landon “Kettlebelly” Kettlewell, she takes on the assignment of covering two young genius “makers” in their Florida favela: Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks. Before you can say “venture capitalist,” Perry and Lester, bankrolled by Kettlewell, have radicalized 20 percent of the faltering U.S. economy with a paradigm called the “New Work.” But even their best efforts can’t stem the domino cascade of global failures, and their enterprise collapses.
Several years pass, with the principals of the New Work all scattered. But the gang gets back together again around the nucleus of a strange kind of amusement-park ride invented by Perry and Lester, a ride that conveys a subliminal story of the zeitgeist to the tourists. But because the successful, quickly franchised ride incidentally incorporates bits of proprietary Disney merch, the tinkerers end up against Uncle Walt’s corporate behemoth, in the form of nasty Sammy Page, VP for Fantasyland. The realpolitik, culture-jammer war that follows culminates in unexpected fashion, and a coda, set some 15 years later, wraps up emotional loose ends.
The armature on which these events are soldered is an amalgam of so many essential SF touchstones, here presented in historical order.
The utopianism is pure H. G. Wells, while the scattershot myriad-ideas-per-page is all Hugo Gernsback. Suzanne’s descent from privilege into the shabby world of the oppressed workers summons up silent scenes from Metropolis. From the pulp era, John Campbell’s Arcot, Morey and Wade, peerless breadboarding, scrapheap-searching inventors, salute Perry and Lester with a wink. (This “bromantic” motif finds expression in the current work of Rudy Rucker as well, a figure allied to Doctorow’s sensibilities.) Meanwhile Doc Savage and his merry band of variegated followers applaud the similar familial vibe that the tribe of makers exudes.
Of course, Robert Heinlein sits Buddha-like at the core of this novel, as he does of all SF, even that which protests and denies his influence. His famous “competent man” archetype has actually been fractionated here: Perry and Lester possess the technical smarts, but are naïve otherwise; Suzanne sports the media, social-engineering chops; and Kettlewell boasts the financial acumen. (It should be noted that “Kettle Belly Baldwin” was an actual Heinlein character, found in “Gulf”  and Friday .) Damon Knight’s A for Anything (1959) deals with some of the same issues of social upheaval via distributed means of production found here, and the insidious animatronic toys in Dick’s short-story “War Game” are evoked almost specifically in Doctorow’s “Disney in a Box” gimmick. William Gibson’s cyberpunk maxim that “The street finds its own uses for things” embodies the maker ethos as pithily as any formulation. Finally, some of Vernor Vinge’s succinct futurism found in his novel Rainbows End (2006) seems inspirational as well.
But to adduce the usage of all these templates and models is not to diminish Doctorow’s insights and originality and skillful handling of his material. He has simply adapted these older SF tools and tropes to an insightful exegesis of our current dilemma, a highly entertaining fictional modeling of a path forward from our current sociopolitical, cultural impasse. To have generated the deep insights into our dilemma and then found clever ways of dramatizing his findings is Doctorow’s unassailable accomplishment.
I found Doctorow’s characters to be a well-fleshed assortment of folks, and their interactions plausibly non-linear. Although they do all possess an identical fluidity of gab that seldom leaves them wordless. He has an empathy for Kerouackian actors, “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, etc., etc.” Makers = techno-beatniks is an easy, albeit facile equation. And indeed, the epilogue that reunites Perry and Lester proves surprisingly touching. Doctorow’s overstuffed plot never leaves the reader buffing her nails. His prose is always colorful and humorous. In fact, his sense of the comic and a propensity for satire are two of his secret weapons that seduce the reader into falling easily into this future.
In the end, Makers feels like a personal, cultural, and literary milestone: an employment of the full literary toolbox of SF, in the service of a portrait of how the world actually works.
If only every genre author set out with the same high ambitions, there would be no talk of SF’s failures, only triumphs.