Walkaway, Cory Doctorow (Tor 978-0-7653-9276-3, $24.99, 379pp, hc) April 2017.
In last month’s 2016 annual wrap-up essay, I mentioned the Nightmares Are Us side of SF, which was on my mind not (entirely) because of what was running on cable news at the time, but because my recent reading keeps pointing out various ways everything can go to hell in a handbasket. Now, it’s possible that in following my nose through the currently available titles I am drawn by the whiff of comic infernos, funhouse mirrors, haunted-house rides, and good-news/bad-news tales of ambivalent heterotopias and unintended consequences. And that cable news is reinforcing my memories of the darker dreams of John Barnes, Nancy Kress, George Turner, and Charles Stross – or maybe it really is getting to be hell/handbasket time.
Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway would like to have it both ways. It is clearly a Big Book, a carnival of ideas, extrapolations, warnings, and arguments, as well as plenty of incident, plot, character interaction, and generous doses of stuff that Doctorow finds interesting or pleasing or fun-to-describe. Also some Blowing Stuff Up. In some ways, it recalls and expands on motifs and riffs from his novella ‘‘Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow’’: a disruptive-technologies coulda-woulda-benna-utopia gone awry, with lots of post-scarcity gadgetry and smart-ass observations about politics, social machineries, and the toxicity of intellectual property laws. But it quickly develops into something more darkly dystopian before turning toward something hopeful and genuinely utopian.
The opening sends Hubert ‘‘Etcetera’’ Espinosa (the nickname a stand-in for the twenty middle names with which his parents encumbered him) and his pal Seth to a ‘‘Communist party’’ – a kind of rave in which the dancing, drinking, and drugging are combined with illegal operation of unlicensed fabrication machinery (in this case, for furniture) as a practical protest against artificial scarcity. The pals meet the intriguing (and informative) Natalie, have some ideologically expository conversations, and wind up escaping together when the party gets raided.
Natalie proves to be the daughter and heir of one of the ‘‘zottarich’’ clans that make up the interlocking transnational oligarchies that run this late-twenty-first century world. Her oppositional attitudes run deeper than mere spoiled-kid rebellion, and after another round of ideologically explanatory conversations (this time including the zotta-class views of dad Jacob Redwater), the three young people decide to go walkaway: to leave the ‘‘default’’ world and join those who live outside the standard wage-slave economy, outside the gated enclaves and surveilled precincts, outside the social and political assumptions that pass for normal in the default.
The trio’s lessons in walkaway life begin at the Belt & Braces, a tavern/hostel/co-op community built and maintained (with the help of plenty of ingenious automation) by voluntary exiles. These early chapters continue with the book’s classically science-fictional tension between its narrative and discursive sides. Discussions (or arguments) about the theory and practice of walkaway life continue throughout, starting with Hubert, Natalie, and Seth coming under the tutelage of Limpopo, an experienced and dedicated walkaway whose view of that world’s ethos is quite pure in its post-scarcity, gift-economy, anti-hierarchical anarchism.
One of Limpopo’s first lessons to the newbies is to not be ‘‘schleppers’’: not to try to carry an entire set of survivalist gear on your person, but to trust instead that the abundance of raw (or abandoned manufactured) materials and free (or pirated) productive technology will provide at least basics and eventually luxuries. This post-industrial-forager approach is combined with a fierce rejection of too much deliberate planning and organization, and a dedication to allowing a useful order to emerge from collective good sense and right thinking. Not that even Limpopo manages such ego-suppression easily, or that everyone in walkaway territory sees things that way, of course. An existential challenge to her view shows up in the book’s first intra-walkaway conflict, when a gang of reputation-economy enthusiasts take over the B&B – and the core of founding walkaways respond by walking away from that, too, with the intention of rebuilding elsewhere. Even the possibility that a new B&B could also be hijacked does not faze her.
It doesn’t matter. The important thing is to convince people to make and share useful things. Fighting with greedy douches who don’t share doesn’t do that. Making more, living under conditions of abundance, that does it. (The failure and implosion of the reputationist usurpers is duly reported later in the book by their humbled and reformed ex-leader.)
The rest of the multi-decade story-line is episodic and multithreaded, as central-cast members interact, cooperate, wander off, and reunite. One element that holds it together is a series of assaults on walkaway communities from the outside, usually organized by the default’s powers-that-be, and always followed by regrouping, rebuilding, and often improving by the ingenious, constantly reconfiguring walkaways. In one plot thread, Jacob Redwater’s obsessive desire to retrieve his daughter leads to kidnapping and a long imprisonment-and-escape sequence that offers glimpses of the internal operations of the world of the zottarich and their minions. And moving from background to foreground as a motivator and game-changer for both sides is the possibility of a kind of immortality via mind recording and reconstitution in a computational environment – a technology that the zottas would love to keep all to themselves but that the walkaways manage to develop for some of their own.
The plotty bits of the story are threaded through with plenty of talk: arguments, explanations, revelatory conversations or confessions, all aimed at outlining a debate-space, the better to anatomize ideas and their implications. The book is big enough to take its time establishing its political-economic environment: that default society is completely in the pocket of the plutocratic zotta hegemony, with national governments subservient to their transnational masters. Mentions of global climate change, economic meltdowns, debt-serfdom, privatization of public property, universal surveillance, and brushfire wars gradually accumulate, along with the picture of just how much power the zottas do have and how relentless and merciless they can be in retaining it.
The Ideas are all over the place, though they clearly cluster most thickly around matters of social organization in a world of (at least potential) plenty and of the Meaning of Life when life might be indefinitely prolonged. On the smaller scale, there is considerable attention given to the machineries that produce and maintain the range of walkaway social and operational arrangements and drive decision-making – it’s reminiscent of Heinlein (I couldn’t not think of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress) or Kim Stanley Robinson (especially his Mars trilogy), both of whom are as interested in the sausage-making process as in the overall recipe. There are also asides – elaborations on not-necessarily political matters such as the pleasures of real coffee, or of onsen baths (three pages of detailed descriptions of hot-and-cold plunges), or an extended sex scene that reads like a cross between an anatomy lesson and a technical account of a wrestling match – though this last does lead to a consideration of the roles of pair-bonding and individuality in a collective polity.
Shaggy as this novel is, with its cargo of ideas, wise saws, and future-modern instances, the narrative can pick up and move with impressive speed, and the set-piece scenes of conflict, confrontation, kidnap, standoff, and chase-and-escape more than balance the nondramatic components. For all of its engagement with What’s Happenin’ Now, Baby, Walkaway feels like good old-fashioned science fiction: part thrill-ride, part warning, part all-night political wrangle with your really smart college roommate.