Bruce Sterling Reviews Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway

Walkaway, Cory Doctorow (Tor 978-0-7653-9276-3, $24.99, 379pp, hc) April 2017.

Locus Magazine, Science Fiction FantasyImagine you’re Edward Snowden. You’re a dissident with an insider grasp of what’s going on, and it’s a whole lot worse than the mundanes were allowed to know. So you just, like, truth-bombed it. You blew the works and you jumped on a jet.

Somehow you ended up in Moscow, along with the Hawaiian pole-dancer. Donald Trump is President. Okay, that situation’s weird, but given that is modern reality, what do you, Ed Snowden, need from the science fiction genre? You need Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway.

I get it about Ed’s stated enthusiasm for this book, because this is a novel where every politi­cal and moral issue that troubles Ed Snowden has been tripled to the awesome scale of H.G. Wells Martian tripods.

Walkaway is a real-deal, generically traditional science-fiction novel; it’s set in an undated future and it features weird set design, odd costumes, fights, romances, narrow escapes, cool weapons, even zeppelins. This is the best Cory Doctorow book ever. I don’t know if it’s destined to become an SF classic, mostly because it’s so advanced and different that it makes the whole genre look archaic.

For instance: in a normal science fiction novel, an author pals up with scientists and popularizes what the real experts are doing. Not here, though. Cory Doctorow is such an Internet policy wonk that he’s ‘‘popularizing’’ issues that only he has ever thought about. Walkaway is mostly about advancing and demolishing potential political arguments that have never been made by anybody but him.

It’s not arch political parody, like Pohl and Kornbluth used to enjoy back when they were the only registered commies in town. It sounds a little like Kim Stanley Robinson taming Mars with endless Californian city-council meetings, but it’s all been weaponized. It’s truly original, different, disturbed and disturbing. It arose from a strange, gloomy world where, instead of Newt Gingrich as the world’s most powerful science fiction writer, it’s Steve Bannon, a complete post-truth viral sleazebag with no factual redlines whatsoever.

Walkaway is what science fiction can look like under modern cultural conditions. It’s ‘‘relevant,’’ it’s full of tremulous urgency, it’s Occupy gone exponential. It’s a novel of polarized culture-war in which all the combatants fast-talk past each other while occasionally getting slaughtered by drones. It makes Ed Snowden look like the first robin in spring.

As a novel, it’s got all kinds of basic plot and structural problems, but I refuse to complain about that, because so what? Walkaway is a sprawl­ing, ominous and important work of a kind one rarely sees. I’ll try to constructively complain about things that seem likely to throw readers out of the text.

I personally enjoyed these off-the-wall ele­ments, in fact I even admire them, but when you’re writing a work of radical political agitation, which is definitely what this is, you need to ease-off with the baroque frills and furbelows. A political agita­tor needs to watch it with the self-congratulatory too-cleverness, because that gets all Mensa and it intimidates the normals. Doctorow’s got that problem in spades, because he’s got an IQ high enough to boil water. Also, he’s a lot more inter­ested in hacking political ideas than he is in the authentic miseries of misgoverned populations.

He could just hammer in the nail and deftly construct his public arguments, but no: he’s got to riff it Neal Stephenson style. The Moon’s not enough for him: he’s got to go for the totally awesome lunar slingshot made from giant rubber.

The sci-fi awesome and the authentically political rarely mix successfully. Cory had an SF brainwave and decided to exploit a cool plot element: people get uploaded into AIs. People often get killed horribly in Walkaway, and the notion that the grim victims of political struggle might get a silicon afterlife makes their fate more conceptually interesting. The concept’s handled brilliantly, too: these are the best portrayals of people-as-software that I’ve ever seen. They make previous disembodied AI brains look like glass jars from 1950s B-movies. That’s seduc­tively interesting for a professional who wants to mutate the genre’s tropes, but it disturbs the book’s moral gravity. The concept makes death and suffering silly.

There’s also a ton of sex in Walkaway. Docto­row sex scenes are firmly based in an extrapolated future sexual politics, and they even advance the plot sometimes. But they’re not erotic. People who enjoy steamy sex scenes in novels are not gonna like these at all. It’s like offering the reader a horseradish Oreo. There’s something unfair about it. I don’t like to censor Cory, because he’s truly got a gift for that aspect of fiction, but if all those sex scenes were simply absent, his novel would improve.

Finally there are Cory’s compositional work-habits, which are, I think, starting to harm his creativity. Cory’s a dedicated over-achiever determined to put in a day’s hard labor, but the seams are showing. You can tell from his tone on the page when he first sits down at his keyboard, and when he gets tired and wraps-it-up it with a quip. It has that episodic feeling of A.E. van Vogt tossing in a new concept every 800 words or so. It gets rote. It’s disciplined, but it’s mechanical.

Worse yet, he’s done this so long that his char­acters are doing it now. They’ve all internalized Cory’s work habits, so that, even though they’re supposed to be wild drop-outs, free-thinkers, liberated weirdo refuseniks from post-scarcity communes, they come across as dutiful Jules-Verne figures. They’re either stacking bricks or lecturing each other. I get it that political stand-ins have to be rather plug-and-play, but they’re rendered in monotone. Their best lines are Cory Doctorow public-speech applause lines. Those are good lines – they’re tremendous even – but they’re speechy. They’re not what fictional char­acters should say as people inhabiting the world.

I don’t know how Cory will defeat this autho­rial kink; the guy’s a machine and he’s stamping solid gold here, but I’m thinking he needs to loosen up some and paint more from the shoulder. Otherwise the fate of Jules Verne beckons at him. He’s gonna become a full-time politician who writes the same adventure novel once a year, steampunk clockwork style.

I’m not worried about Cory’s literary fate. I’ve read a whole lot of science fiction novels. Few are so demanding and thought-provoking that I have to abandon the text and go for a long walk.

I won’t say there’s nothing else like Walkaway, because there have been some other books like it, but most of them started mass movements or attracted strange cults. There seems to be a whole lot of that activity going on nowadays. After this book, there’s gonna be more.

–Bruce Sterling

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2 thoughts on “Bruce Sterling Reviews Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway

  • June 26, 2017 at 2:58 am

    “…an IQ high enough to boil water…”

    “What and insult”, I thought, until I recognized the Fahrenheit parochialism.

  • April 26, 2019 at 2:55 am

    René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur’s scale has water boiling at 80. sounds about right.

    And you know René is not a Doctorow character because his name is so short.


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