Through a Mirror, Politically

I'm going to bend my rules a little, to talk about Cory Doctorow's 'For the Win'. Partly because it's a really good book, and partly because it's a fairly important subject, and partly because, well, they're my rules; if I don't bend them, who will?

The thing about For The Win is, it's not really science-fiction by any conventional definition, and it's only debateably futuristic. It does contain a few elements that don't quite map onto the present day, but for the most part it's a wholly contemporary tale. And even those few elements aren't especially fantastic; if they were enough to define For The Win as science-fiction, every Tom Clancy novel ever would fall into the same definition. And I can't think of many who'd consider Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan or Rainbox Six series to fall into that literary camp.

So, why do I want to talk about this book on a blog entitled 'Forward the Future'? Well, because it's not about the setting or the technology, this time; instead, it's about the ideas. Although it contains no fantastical futuristic technology or hallmark science-fiction tropes for the exploration of the humanity (aliens, alternate realities, clones and robots; the Big Four), For The Win does have something to say about a likely near-future reality. Namely, what happens when Third/Developing World workers take a lesson from Western workers? What happens when trans-national 'independent contractors' decide not to compete as national citizens, but to unite as labourers? To be specific, what happens when gold farmers decide to start a union?

There are those who would dismiss the idea as impossible on its face. No shortage of them would claim that there's something unique about the working cultures of India or China or south-east Asia, that a union would never be accepted by such people. To that, I say nonsense; almost nobody, no matter their colour, creed or sex, likes to work very hard. I don't mean people don't want the old cliche, 'an honest day's pay for an honest day's work', I mean all things being equal, people don't want to work twelve-hour days for pennies an hour, minus expenses. Industrial workers in the West got tired of it, which is why we have a five-day work week and vacation pay and sick days, and there's no reason to assume that fundamental aspect of human nature, the desire to not work any harder than you absolutely have to, won't carry over to workers in the rest of the world. There's very little chance of a trans-national union, for reasons both obvious and subtle, both explored in For The Win, but there's every reason to assume that eventually, Chinese sweatshop workers are going to find they've had enough, and demand something a little more humane from their employers.

Which is not to say it will be easy, and this is where For The Win really shines. It would've been simplicity itself to have the heroic workers triumph over their greedy and corrupt masters, both economic and political. But it wouldn't have been believable. The politicians and the businessmen are just as tightly intertwined in modern-day China as they ever were in the America of the Robber Barons or Industrial Revolution-era Britain, and they will use all the considerable powers of the state to block anything that looks to threaten their friends and themselves. Heck, we still see it in the West, with the current war on unions (understandable, since after all they did crash the economy in 2008, oh wait...) and Canada's own government's apparent refusal to allow any workers to go on strike, ever. For The Win makes the work of unionization as hard as is believable, which probably means it's easier than would be true, with gangsters and cops alike trying to crush the nascent organization on behalf of, essentially, the exact same people. Indian badmashes with machetes, Korean gangsters throwing firebombs, and the riotgear-clad police of the People's Republic of China all use similar tactics, to similar ends, to the point where it's largely impossible to understand where the criminals end and the state begins.

So, For The Win is about that moment, not too far from now, when a new group of oppressed workers stands up and says, enough. But that's not actually a narrative; what's the novel actually about, as a work of fiction? And aside from all this consciousness-raising, is it actually any good? Is it, in short, worth reading?

Happily, the answer is yes. The novel follows several characters, spread over multiple countries and continents, in order to provide a variety of viewpoints on the story. There's Matthew and his buddies, a group of Chinese gold farmers trying to get out from under the thumb of Boss Wing; there's Mala, also known as General Robotwallah, and her 'army', a group of Indian slum-children hired to fight the gold farmers on behalf of the game runners; there's Wei-Dong, a 17-year-old Jewish kid from the OC with serious Sinophilia and a desire to make his own mark on the world; there's Connor Prikkel, a statistician who figures out the formula for fun and uses it to get in good with Coca-Cola Games; and there's Big Sister Nor, the mysterious visionary at large in south-east Asia who sets in motion the plot that connects all these characters to each other. And of course, each of those major characters has a handful of minor characters in their orbits, some of whom become just as important as the story goes on. There are also brief looks in on single-shot characters for a page or two, to illustrate some particular point or provide a bit of necessary backstory, and despite the brevity of their appearances they're all quite well fleshed-out, all things considered. There are also occasional breaks for the narrator to explain, by way of metaphor and example, key economic ideas like futures trading and bond markets and derivatives, which is delivered with all the scorn that, frankly, such dangerous and economy-wrecking junk-work deserves. There's no secret as to what side Cory Doctorow is on; this is not a book for the 1%.

Which is why I wanted to bend my rules a little, to talk about it here. For The Win is that rarest of things, a modern scifi book (it's what it'd be shelved as, if not necessarily what it is) with a social conscience. It's worth reading on its own, as a work of fiction, but it's even more worthy of time and attention given it's willingness to talk about the way the global economic system is, frankly, rigged. And the fact that it does so realistically, without resorting to a Shadowrun- or Tales from the Afternow-style dystopian world of monolithic megacorps, just makes it all the more compelling.

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