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.