Review: For the Win: Organize to Survive! by Cory Doctorow

Last year, I very much enjoyed Doctorow’s Little Brother, part YA novel about civil liberties and part how-to guide for civil disobedience in the 21st century. It was well written and while some felt the technological descriptions were somewhat basic, I think a good balance was struck between explaining things for the non-nerd audience while not being overly patronising to the more technically literate.

I was quite excited then when I received Doctorow’s next novel, For the Win: Organize to Survive! as a birthday gift and a recent trip to Turkey meant that I was able to read the whole book in one stretch. In recent years, between the demands of work and the OU , most of my reading has been piecemeal. A most regrettable sacrifice, but it certainly makes me appreciate those rare windows of literary indulgence.

For the Win is a story set in a near future where the economies of Massively Multiplayer Online games are, well, massive. So huge in fact that gold farming, the organised process of acquiring lots of in-game valuables and selling them on to cash-rich, time-poor players, is big business; Big business that is performed across the third world, invariably by cruel, violent gang bosses. The premise of FTW is that the kids playing for pay in a variety of slums across the world want rights, representation and protection from abuse. They want a union and are willing to fight for it, using a combination of strikes and market manipulation.

Sadly, there are a lot of things that don’t work in this book. Firstly, the reader is thrown straight into the jargon heavy world of online gaming, with nary a glossary in sight. I am familiar with many of the terms but it was still sometimes a struggle for me. I can see anyone less familiar with the jargon, that is often never explained, just giving up before the end of the first chapter. A similar problem is encountered later in the book where we have an explanation of hedge funds, what they are, how they work, how they can be manipulated etc. Except the description isn’t very good. I’m sure it’s complete and accurate, but the description was detailed enough to baffle me, but not clear enough to part the veil.

Another problem with the narrative was the distributed characterisation. We’d be introduced to a strong protagonist, then another, then the first one would be dropped, then add a few more middling ones, then the remaining strong one would be dropped, etc. By the end we had lost all the best characters and were left with a series of less interesting ones, nursing their wounds. I did wonder if this was supposed to be part of the meta-narrative, that a union movement isn’t about strong individuals but the masses. Or, it could just be a poor use of character arcs.

Overall, I liked the premise and found it interesting. But I would not call it fun to read and I’m unlikely to recommend it, I found it mostly a hard-to-read polemic. People who would like it: Online gamers with an interest in economics and union politics.

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