At its core, this is a book about economics and the formation of unions. Boooring. Yet Doctorow weaves an intense story around these potentially dry topics, resulting in one of the most riveting books I've read this year.
For the Win takes place in the near future, when multiplayer online games—descendants of Everquest and World of Warcraft—have continued to rise in popularity. Gold farmers work long hours under harsh conditions to harvest digital items and currency from the games so they can be sold for real cash. When they realize they are being mistreated, they begin to come together and fight for their rights, in both the real world and in gamespace.
This isn't exactly science fiction. All of the technology described in the novel already exists, in only slightly less advanced form (e.g., the most exotic technology I can recall is a retinal scanner that starts a car). This grounding in our reality means that the struggles Doctorow deals with will become reality, where they haven't already.
Indeed, the economies of online games will begin to rival the economies of small countries; they're already worth billions of dollars per year. When that much money is involved, the line between online worlds and the real world is bound to get fuzzy. For the Win emphasizes that, at their hearts, life is a big game, and games are serious business. Economics, power, gambling, risk, violence: they're all just games that will be played in any place people gather, real or virtual.
It's interesting to see Doctorow's vision of social media, as well. He demonstrates that, in a world where text, pictures, radio broadcasts, videos, etc., can be instantly created and transmitted to a network of people anywhere in the world (the main characters are in the U.S., India, and China, yet all work together), the organizations that used to control the transmission of information no longer have power. It's like an effortless novelization of Clay Shirky's ideas about technology and social networking.
For the Win breaks some rules of the typical YA novel by being longer than it needs to be, and having so many characters that they can get mixed up. "Show don't tell" doesn't apply, with character-free tangents explaining complex economic topics that I found fascinating but could be dry to most. But you know what? Cory Doctorow can break the rules, because he's a fucking genius. He has great ideas coming out of his ass. He could bang out unedited thoughts into an unordered list and it would still be a great read.
It could, however, be considered too one-sided. While it all makes sense in the context of the story, there is nary an anti-union word in the book. With London's month-long bus strike just coming to an end yesterday, I'm of the opinion that there are situations in which unions can become the greedy organizations they were designed to combat. It's often not possible for all workers to come together, like when the workers who need buses to get to work can't do so because the workers who drive the buses want more money.
In any case, the story of unions, economics, and video games that Doctorow has created is exciting and eye-opening. It will probably appeal most to nerdier, technology-oriented types with an interest in the money game that makes the world go 'round, but almost anyone could find something to love here. for the win ftw.
Note: This book doesn't come out until May of next year. As far as I can Google, this is the first review on the entire internet. I pledged Cory Doctorow my eternal love if he'd send me a copy, and he was kind enough to email me an early draft. It's full of errors both small and substantial, but I'm sure they will be corrected. My copy of For the Win, for the record, is the "second manuscript printing," dated October 8th 2009. If anyone expresses a problem with the existence of this review, I will certainly take it into consideration.
P.S. Somebody needs to actually create Zombie Mecha (one of the games in the book), right now.