Review of For the Win by

Book cover for For the Win

I don’t much like economics. I like Cory Doctorow’s metaphor here in For the Win of the economy like a train: most people have no idea where it’s going, or whether the driver is even still alive; while economists speculate on all of this, some people pay attention to them while others just ignore them entirely and watch the scenery go by.

I don’t much like economics, but I guess I should admit that the economy is important. Similarly, I won’t accept the cop-out idea that it’s impossible to comprehend economics unless you’re some kind of genius. That’s why I love Doctorow’s didactic novels: he is so good at taking a subject he is clearly passionate about and breaking it down into easier-to-understand lessons. So, yes, For the Win has a lot of pointed lectures about economic theories, from investments and hedge funds to shortselling and market panic—but it’s all couched in examples from fictitious game economies. I love that.

The cast of this novel is also stunning. Doctorow assembles quite a diverse bunch: Chinese gold farmers and dissidents, Indonesian labour rights advocates, Indian gold farmer–busting gamers, etc. There are gamers and economists, concerned parents and bemused traditional union leaders. Most importantly, these characters don’t always get along. Mala and Yasmin’s opinions diverge in Dharavi, only for the two to be drawn back together after a dangerous confrontation. Even then, they don’t always see eye-to-eye. I like stories where the protagonists have this kind of low-level conflict—conflict not for drama’s sake, mind you, but in the service of acknowledging that it is seldom clear what the “right” thing to do is.

Most of the main characters change quite a bit. Doctorow allows some time to elapse between each major part of the novel. By skipping forward in this way, he can bring us to new and interesting impasses, whether it’s the rift between Mala and Yasmin or Wei-Dong’s crazy plan to smuggle himself into China. One notable impression this makes is how privileged I am, as a Western reader, compared to many of the characters in this book. There is a deceptive and dangerous idea that somehow technology, particularly the Internet, is somehow going to liberate people in developing nations from oppression and unjust labour and create a more equal society. That’s clearly not the case here: Mala and her army have access to the Internet, but it’s just another tool that her boss uses to keep her oppressed and dependent on him for income and protection.

On the flip side, Doctorow shows us how the Internet and related technologies can be forces for good, when used as one might use any other tool. The Webbly gold farmers take the very same economies that others use to oppress them and, by cornering the gold markets, take those economies hostage for their own ends. Doctorow distills the basic tenets of union and labour philosophy in a very simple way: one or two people standing up for themselves will end badly; nearly everyone standing up for each other makes a statement so loud the world can hear.

The resolution is somewhat unrealistic, perhaps, in its scope, although there are tinges of bittersweetness to it. It’s appropriate enough given the big, dramatic nature of the entire plot. And throughout the novel, Doctorow shows realistically enough the brutal ways in which those in power respond to people’s attempts to organize and unionize; he does not pull his punches there. He makes me feel such pitch-perfect pathos for these characters, both the ones who suffer and the ones who survive. It’s easy to get caught up in the rush of the moment and that feeling of power and triumph; he encourages you to get a piece of that elation. There’s so much more going on, though, and he captures that too.

For the Win has a great deal of nuance, then. It’s not light reading, in the sense that Doctorow does digress on many points economical. But he does this through examples in games and game economies. He takes the topical—but global—idea of games and how those make money for companies and marries it with the issue of cheap and abusive labour practices. The result is a sometimes bizarre but somewhat brilliant piece of contemporary science fiction, and I, for one, feel much improved and much entertained having read it.

Engagement

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