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For the Win

by Cory Doctorow

With his new YA novel, Cory Doctorow doesn’t press against the limits of the imagination so much as the limits of the genre. While For the Win is presented as fiction for younger readers, it’s a very advanced example of the kind. The book is packed not only with violence and peril, but with complex economic and psychosocial concepts as well, and the story unfolds through dense, sophisticated prose. It’s also a crackling read, as one would expect from Doctorow, the Toronto-born author of Little Brother.

For the Win shifts with aplomb across national borders, ethnic groups, and classes while focusing on a handful of characters involved in the world of online multiplayer gaming. As behooves  a young adult novel, these characters are all teenagers. Matthew, a skilled gamer in Shenzhen, China, is hired by a shady company (read: the mob) to harvest valuable items within video games that can then be sold in the real world for real cash. “Gold farming,” as the practice is known, is big business, and Matthew is a gifted employee. So gifted, in fact, that he breaks away from his employers and sets up his own crew. His former bosses, however, don’t take kindly to this, and the novel opens with Matthew being attacked, threatened, and his computer equipment wrecked.

Halfway around the world, Leonard is a high school student in Orange County, California, who would rather spend his time gaming with his Asian cohorts, who have no idea he’s a white American (he’s known to them only as “Wei-Dong”). When his life starts to spiral out of control, he finds work with one of the game companies as a Mechanical Turk, a real-time “spot referee” within the game, assigned to troubleshoot whenever “a player did something the game didn’t know how to interpret.”

Mala, a super-warrior in Mumbai known as “General Robotwalla,” is recruited for her gaming skills, and handsomely rewarded. Her impressive new income allows her to move her mother into a nicer apartment and support a crew of subordinates. But when a real-world issue interferes with her game-play, she becomes aware of just how beholden she is to the men who now control virtually every aspect of her life, and of the consequences of failure. Nothing, she discovers, comes for free.

These characters, along with an economist and the host of an illegal computer-based radio show directed at young women working in China’s factories, become involved with the mysterious Big Sister Nor, an online agitator seeking to build borderless labour unions in the virtual worlds of the gold farmers and fight for workers’ rights in the real world.

Those battles will be familiar to any student of history, rooted as they are in the early 20th-century labour movement (the workers even refer to themselves as “Webblies,” a nod to the International Workers of the World, a.k.a. “the Wobblies”), but here they are given a futuristic twist.

It’s a barely futuristic twist, however. If science fiction is literature of the future, For the Win is set about fifteen minutes from now. Though the ecosystem of online gaming, gold farmers, and sweatshops transforming virtual goods into actual money might not be familiar to many readers, it’s very real. And Doctorow doesn’t allow for any confusion: everything the reader needs – from labour history to economic theory to background about online games – is contained within the novel, expertly parcelled out just as such knowledge becomes necessary, largely (though not entirely) avoiding lengthy digressions from the plot.

The large amount of non-fictional material the book contains is not the only way it could be considered educational. Most readers, especially those on the younger end of the spectrum, will likely never have imagined daily life in a slum in Mumbai or in the streets of Shenzhen. Doctorow paints vivid, utterly realistic portraits of these worlds filled with fine detail. He is able to shift effortlessly from the narrow alleys of Dharavi to the virtual dungeons of Svartalfheim Warriors to a discussion of arbitrage, all without missing a beat or losing the reader’s attention.

It helps that, despite the complexity of the ideas underlying the story and the sophisticated interweaving of narrative strands, For the Win is rooted in clearly drawn, well-developed characters. It takes considerable skill not only to create such a large cast of people with different backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultural baggage, but to allow each of those characters to grow and change, realistically and organically. Even Connor Prikkel, who grows fat and complacent in his job at Coca Cola Games Central, has his own empathetic character arc.

With his high profile in the media, his speaking engagements, his blogging (at boingboing.net and elsewhere), and his ongoing work in the area of intellectual property rights and freedoms, it might be easy to forget Doctorow’s considerable prowess as a writer were it not for books like this. For the Win is a dazzling piece of fiction: it makes you feel, it makes you think, and you come away from it wiser, looking at the world in a different way.