24 April 2011

FTW? WTF. (mid-book review)

I'm now in the third act of Cory Doctorow's "For the Win," and I have to say that this is probably his worst novel so far.

After reading most of them before this one, plus several of his short stories, it's safe to say that I have a handle on his style and his favorite themes. "Outsider bucks the system" is a theme that nearly everyone loves, but what's special about Mr. Doctorow's work is that he chooses systems that people overlook, take for granted, or discount completely--things we are only vaguely aware of and not very interested in learning, at least till it makes the headlines. The politics of running a Disney theme park? What entrepreneurship will look like within five years started to look like beginning sometime in '09? Workers' strikes and the economies of MMORPGs?

I couldn't have told you that I cared much about any of these things before reading Mr. Doctorow's novels. And I wouldn't have cared if he hadn't been so good at showing us just how plausible--no, real some of these situations can be. We're probably still at least 30 years away from being able to download ourselves into clones after we die, as in "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom," but the idea of esteem/coolness someday functioning as a currency and being online all the time already makes sense in the age of the Internet. This country's security protocols are nowhere near TSA levels, but anyone who learned anything about the Marcos regime can grasp that the horrific government abuse in "Little Brother" could happen here if our leaders were smart about it. The power of bloggers among the media, the arrival of 3D printers, and what Limor Fried did with the Xbox tells me that Mr. Doctorow was nothing short of prophetic with "Makers."

I've realized, however, that plausibility is only half, maybe one third of what's made me enjoy Mr. Doctorow's work so far. His first and most fantastic, far-fetched work, "Down and Out," was built around a (dare I say old-fashioned?) conspiracy and murder mystery. I cared as much about finding out who killed the protagonist and how he was going to save the theme park from total reinvention as I did about what it would be like to have a spliced girlfriend from outer space.

I cared about the protagonist, period, and I wanted to be on his side. I wanted to be on the side of all Mr. Doctorow's protagonists because, even though they sometimes bordered on the Marty Stu*, they cared about their work and their freedom, as any human being should.

The problem with "For the Win," which tackles the age-old problem of workers' rights in the world of online games like Ragnarok and World of Warcraft, is that I don't really care about the protagonists. I almost wish that plausibility was a problem, but because I've actually tried a few MMORPGs, I'm free to focus entirely on the characters and their problems, and they don't excite me.

Some might say that it's because there are too many of them. I say having many characters shouldn't be a problem if they are memorable and their conflicts are compelling. I don't really mind when an author jumps from character to character and scene to scene if he or she maintains the feeling that they all have a connecting thread--and I suppose that's what Mr. Doctorow wanted to do: show that labor problems affect all workers everywhere, even online.

The trouble is, neither the characters nor the scenes in "FTW" feel very fleshed out. And while it's not hard for me to keep track of what's happened so far to whom, there are significant gaps between scenes, so I feel somewhat cheated.

For instance, my favorite character was Mala, the Indian schoolgirl and gaming general from the slums. Her resourcefulness and inner strength made her a breath of fresh air in a sea of shy, male gamer geeks, and of all the characters, she experienced the most dramatic, character-shaping ups and downs. Mala was torn between earning the money that helped uplift her family's condition and her desire to get out from under her boss's thumb. Given her independent spirit, I believed it was only a matter of time before the union won her over to their side.

Several scenes later, she's working against the union and threatening to burn the whole slum down with a petrol bomb. What? What?! Without any explanation, this just seems horribly out of character. This girl beat up her own would-be rapist. Her hunger for justice and equality is just mounting and mounting with every scene. What happened to break her great spirit? When did she become so cynical? I'd love to hear the answers, but because Mr. Doctorow's now telling the slum storyline from Mala's best friend's point of view, I don't think I'm going to get them. The next time I see Mala, she's seen the light, but the disservice to her character has already been done.

As for the scenes, I'm starting to get tired of Mr. Doctorow's "one guy explains things to another guy" or "one character's internal monologue explains things to the reader" fix. (There's no "one guy makes an inspiring speech to the group" yet--it's another of his favorite tactics--but given the worker's rights angle, it shouldn't be far behind.) The interludes where he addresses the reader directly to explain some more actually interest me more than when the characters are doing it; I almost wish he'd just written the whole thing as a long essay (but then again, maybe I wouldn't have read it).

For the first time, I actually understand what all my teachers meant by "show, don't tell." I actually think telling has its uses, and I like how story may be advanced just as well through dialogue as through action. But this is just getting boring--especially considering that I don't care very much about the people doing the talking.

Yes, people get arrested, tortured, even horribly scarred. But when the novel cuts to a scene where people are just sitting around talking and making plans, but not yet really doing anything right afterward (it's fitting that I'm writing this review in the middle of the scene where Mala's asking Ashok the economist-planner why things are taking so long), it becomes hard to care about them. It's ironic that instead of eliciting outrage over an important problem, Mr. Doctorow's done a good job of desensitizing this reader, sort of the way news outlets do--now oil price hikes, now celebrity gossip, now a corruption hearing, now a lizard that can play basketball.

So, it's Wei-Dong enjoying his inheritance. Now it's Lu and Matthew listening to rebel radio. Now it's Ashok and Yasmin talking to other union people. Now it's Connor making a bet with his co-worker. Now it's Big Sister Nor and her pals checking out of the hospital--oh, yeah, they got beat up last time. What are they going to do about it? Stay tuned, because it's Wei-Dong's turn again.

The other problem is that you'd think this kind of story would have given the Man a face by now. In "Down and Out," it was that sneaky girl who wanted to take over the theme park. In "Little Brother," it was Severe Haircut and her government goons. In "Makers," it was that guy from Disney who wanted to bust an intellectual property lawsuit on everyone's ass. But in "FTW," we just get this vague idea of corporate bigshots pulling all the strings from the shadows. Maybe Connor, the guy who works for the games and enjoys it, is supposed to be their face, but we don't actually get enough facetime with him to be reasonably scared of his power.

I know Mr. Doctorow's capable of telling a good story. "Chicken Little" was so polished and chilling that I almost couldn't believe he had written it. It's now not only my favorite work of his, but also perhaps one of my favorite stories ever. But because it's so good, I'm wondering how he could let the mess that is "FTW" pass.

Maybe it's not fair to review a book when I haven't finished it yet; maybe I'm just one scene away from where he drops the big one and turning each page is no longer a chore. Maybe "FTW" is full of win after all; there'll be a kick-ass finale, and I'll be glad I didn't give up. I'm just starting to worry that this hope is for naught--I'm well into the second half of the book and it still feels like nothing's happening. This is the first time Mr. Doctorow's produced a novel that I could put down.

* "Little Brother" and "Makers" both featured sex scenes in which one of the geeky, loveable heroes gets it on with a girl from the cause. But maybe I shouldn't complain; the girl is always smart, funny, and more sexually experienced. Nothing like this yet in "For the Win," but my money's on gamer Lu or gamer Matthew hooking up with Jie the rebel radio host.

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