First, thanks are due to the author for his continued decision to release his works free on the Internet. Traditional media would believe it counterintuitive: why would consumers pay for something free? Counterintuitive or not, it works: it reduces the barrier to entry for a consumer. I first got my taste for Doctorow's writing with a free download, but it's one I enjoyed enough that his books -- in traditional form -- reside on my bookshelves and have survived several culls of my collection. Something to consider, publishers.
I may give younger readers too little credit, but this book is lengthy. That's something enjoyable to an adult, as it gives the complex stories time to develop and weave together. But as the book is supposedly oriented towards young adults, I wonder whether the novel's length will prove a barrier to completion.
The book reminds me of other polemic fiction I've read whose main theme is the portrayal of the triumph of a particular political ideal. This plays to one of Doctorow's strengths -- his zealotry. Doctorow believes in his ideals and thus crafts his characters so they do.
Additionally, Doctorow has a particular knack, very enjoyable for the reader, of putting together ideas in a way that have the ring of common sense, yet in a way in which they hadn't quite yet been put together -- a certain "sticky", memorable way that sits easily in the brainpan. Certainly, reputation economics has been around since time immemorial ... but only Doctorow termed it "whuffie" in his first novel, and since then, that's what many people know it as. That knack is in full display in this novel.
Still, for this reviewer, the "triumph" of this particular political ideal ended up also causing problems with suspension of disbelief. Despite my desire to be optimistic about the world, this book displays a grand-scale triumph over big business interests -- and an act of enlightened behavior on big business' part -- that I just don't see happening in reality. Of course, that opinion may easily be attributable to cynical elements within my own worldview, and, given that this is a young adult book, hopefully such elements will not have had as much time to take root in younger readers.
An additional "flaw" I found is one on a larger scale: Doctorow's novels have recently begun trending more towards polemics, and away from individual character growth and development. When I read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Eastern Standard Tribe, or Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, it is clear I'm witnessing events happening to a single character, a life experience that involves growth and development, set in a Doctorow "geek world" I'd love to inhabit with Doctorow-style geek characters I'd love to have in my life. The geek relationships in those books are reminiscent of one of my most favorite books, Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland ... and that's one of the best compliments I can give an author.
Nowadays, though, the brush he's wielding with Makers, Little Brother, and now this novel -- it is one that strikes me as far more broad and less subtle. To borrow film directors as an analogy, Doctorow seems to be writing in the style of Michael Bay lately, instead of character studies such as one might see with Scorsese or Kubrick.
I'd like to see him work more towards those character studies he first worked with. I hope to see him work more with the framework of characters interacting in near-future worlds, a framework used in his earlier works, rather than the grand tales of polemic futurepolitik he has recently begun writing.