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Book Review: For the Win by Cory Doctorow

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It may look like just a book to you, but Cory Doctorow’s For the Win (Tor Teen: May, 2010) plays several different roles for both its author and its readers.

Doctorow is at least as well known as a blogger (he is a co-editor on Boing Boing) and energetic proponent of liberated intellectual content as he is for his fiction. A native of Canada, Doctorow was involved in the nuclear disarmament movement and Greenpeace at an early age, and graduated from the SEED Alternative High School. He co-founded an open software company, Opencola, in 1999, and served as the European Affairs Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, of which he is now a Fellow. His first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Tor Books, 2003) was published under a Creative Commons License that allowed electronic editions to be circulated freely as long as they weren’t sold for a profit. This was later amended to allow “derivative works” like fan fiction, again as long as no profit was involved.

Since then, Doctorow has released all his books under similar licenses, and frequently makes them available as free downloads simultaneously with their conventional release by his publishers. He aggressively campaigns against DRM protection on electronic media such as ebooks. He’s also an occasional character in the web comic xkcd by Randall Munroe. (When I cited Doctorow in an online post a while ago, one of my friends said that he never realized Cory Doctorow was a real person outside of xkcd.)

A man of strong opinions, Doctorow definitely lives out his principles. He doesn’t just argue for open sharing of intellectual property, he models that concept, in order to prove that it’s economically feasible. But just as you’d expect, Doctorow’s deeply felt views tend to shape both his life and his writing, and his fiction serves his causes as much as vice versa. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor a radical one. A lot of old “children’s classics” are social or political screeds thinly disguised as fiction (such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877), Felix Salten’s Bambi (1923), Margaret Marshall Saunders’ Beautiful Joe (1893)), or allegories like C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956). However, when ideology becomes intrusive it can mar the book as literature.

For the Win has a complicated storyline that weaves together several groups of characters in multiple countries. It was never clear to me just how far in the future the story was intended to be set, or if it was futuristic at all. I wasn’t sure how much of the online gaming environment described was fictionalized, although I don’t really think that Coca Cola operates highly profitable game networks online in the real world. I’m not assuming that they don’t! While I’m not an active gamer myself, I’ve gamed enough, and have sufficient exposure to the gaming subculture, that I had no trouble understanding the terminology, game play or underlying infrastructure. I can’t judge whether a reader with absolutely no previous knowledge of role-playing and/or online gaming would be confused by For the Win. But ultimately, you don’t have to be a gamer to follow the plot, because For the Win isn’t about gaming: it’s about economic abuses, social inequity, and the labor movement.

When the book opens, we’re introduced to several teenaged main characters, who are all involved in massive corporate-owned online games. Matthew and Lu, in Shenzhen, China, Mala; Yasmin in Dharavi, India; and Wei-Dong (Leonard) Goldberg in Anaheim, California, are all paid to work within the game universes. As “gold farmers,” they collect treasure, build up experience points and in other ways acquire game artifacts that wealthy players will purchase in order to speed their own game progress. Other paid roles in these corporate games include playing fighting squads that brutally wipe out “cheating” characters and gold farmers, and serving as a “Turk,” an online staff person who spontaneously reacts to game events with minor decisions that aren’t determined by the game’s software. These workers are corralled into sweatshops by mafia-like bosses who control their working and living conditions, skim their profits and retaliate harshly if the young players try to rebel.

As the story progresses, the characters are gradually united, through in-game contact, underground webcast radio shows, online messages and finally face to face meetings, with Big Sister Nor, a slightly older Malaysian labor organizer. We’re also introduced to Connor Prikkel, a genius who invents some of the economic theories exploited by the game world, and who has been hired by the corporations to keep things running smoothly. Guided by Big Sister Nor and inspired by underground webcaster Jie, the gamers become the International Workers of the World Wide Web, or “Webblies” (after the 20th Century labor reformers, the Wobblies) and work to bring the corrupt system to its knees. When Wei Dong’s affluent parents try to cut off his gaming habit, he runs away from home and eventually ships himself (literally) to China to join his gaming friends in their struggle. Ultimately, the Webblies draw factory workers from more conventional industries into their war against abusive corporate employers of all kinds.

Although marketed as YA, For the Win doesn’t shrink from describing the gritty details of the characters’ grim living conditions, harsh (and even deadly) treatment at the hands of the police and their gaming bosses, and the effects of their rebellion on people like Connor Prikkel. The story is compelling and the locations are drawn with dramatic and vivid colors. In interviews, Doctorow has talked about the eight months of research that went into this book, which included a month of traveling in India and China and extensive interviews with experts, economists, and gamers. The comprehensive vision of how the Internet could revolutionize — well, revolutions — is plausible and thought-provoking, perhaps more so if you have a strong grounding in what’s already possible online (a lot more than many realize!). But Doctorow never tries to kid us. For all the sophisticated electronics, when serious change starts happening, it involves real bodies, real places and real blood and pain.

Since the release of For the Win, the media has begun reporting on labor protests and demands for higher wages and better working conditions in China and India, and some economists are predicting that the age of cheap outsourced jobs is coming to an end. For the Win may prove a forecast of the real world’s future.

What mars For the Win, at least to a certain degree, is its tendency to be overly didactic and lecturing. There are just too many “info-dumps” where the plot stops dead while Doctorow, in a second-person, present tense Narrative Voice, Explains It All To You. While some of the information is necessary to understand the goings-on, not all of it is, and a skilled writer can work exposition into his prose with more finesse. I don’t think that Doctorow lacks that skill. I think that he simply enjoys expounding on his favorite topics, and in For the Win, he indulges himself more than is good for his book.

Nevertheless, For the Win is an absorbing and memorable read. True to Doctorow’s vision, the book was released under a Creative Commons “BY-NC-SA” (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike) license, allowing free sharing and redistribution of electronic versions with proper attribution, and the creation (even the encouragement) of derivative works based on the book, as long as none of this is done for profit. For the Win was launched with free downloads of the book on Doctorow’s website, including an audiobook version. Tor Teen also made 200 advance copies available to writers age 18 or under who wanted to review it for their blog or school paper. No one could accuse Doctorow of failing to practice what he preaches.

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About Vyrdolak

Inanna Arthen (Vyrdolak) is an artist, speaker and author of The Vampires of New England Series (http://vampiresofnewengland.com): Mortal Touch (2007), The Longer the Fall (2010), and All the Shadows of the Rainbow (2013). Book 4 is currently in progress. Inanna is a lifelong scholar of vampire folklore, fiction and fact, and runs By Light Unseen Media (http://bylightunseenmedia.com), an independent press dedicated to publishing vampire fiction and nonfiction. She is a member of Broad Universe, New England Horror Writers, Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE). She holds an M.Div degree from Harvard and is an outspoken advocate for the Pagan and LGBT communities. She is minister of the Unitarian-Unitarian Church of Winchendon, MA.