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Walkaway

by Cory Doctorow

JuneReviews_Walkaway_CoverS

In Walkaway, Cory Doctorow – author of the novel Little Brother and co-editor of the popular blog Boing Boing – offers a scathing critique of capitalism in the context of a near-future society in which problems of economic inequality have become exponentially worse. Fabrication technology has advanced sufficiently to eliminate scarcity, but the oligarchs who dominate the world’s social and political structures won’t allow this happen. Ordinary people respond by opting out of “default” society and establishing utopian, anarchist “walkaway” communities. The novel follows three young people who go walkaway; readers see the development of these communities – and perhaps the secret to immortality – through their eyes.

Walkaway is painfully didactic, full of infodumps and political discussions closer to Socratic dialogues than the sort of thing human beings actually say to each other. In that respect, it resembles Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – the Atlas Shrugged of sci-fi – more than any other antecedent, despite being at the opposite end of the political spectrum. It’s all the more painful because I agree with most of Doctorow’s critiques of late capitalism, and am eager to see alternatives represented in fiction in a way that feels fluid and natural. But this version of utopia stumbles as much as any other.

Doctorow relentlessly mocks tech-bro notions of meritocracy, even including a gamification-obsessed walkaway in a cautionary role, but the novel’s alternative social structure proves equally unable to separate a person’s identity and worth – moral or otherwise – from their labour. There seems little room for any walkaway who isn’t useful, and usefulness is expressed in productivity-focused, tech-industry terms. One walkaway and her partner have a brief, unconvincing conversation about meritocracies in which they make a careful distinction between useful actions, which are real, and useful people, which comprise a false capitalist category. But the attitudes of most of Walkaway’s central characters make it clear that people are what they do, and there are indeed bad and useless people, not just people who do bad or useless things.

This form of classism runs subtly and not so subtly through much of Doctorow’s work, but Walkaway exhibits it in spades. It’s a creaking relic of pre–New Wave science fiction that implies engineers or similar tech workers can not only see problems more clearly than others, but also replicate the skills of virtually anyone else, mostly just by thinking about them really hard. Among the walkaways, readers are offered only mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists, and others who today would be middle- or upper-middle-class tech workers. Doctorow’s utopia seems to have little room for anyone else. There are no tradespeople here, or artists, or anyone who was a cashier, construction worker, or unskilled labourer. This makes Walkaway – ostensibly about the dream of eliminating class-based inequality – a frustrating exercise in erasure.

Doctorow’s utopian vision also comes with a heavily mechanistic, algorithm-knows-best attitude, despite the long history of algorithmic intervention in planning and infrastructure actively harming the marginalized and vulnerable. One consequence of this mechanistic outlook in an age of potential abundance is the denial of sentiment. Right or not, we often associate an excess of sentiment with weakness. But an insufficient level of sentiment in a person is something we associate just as strongly with psychopaths.

People externalize memory: this is the chief function of writing, photography, and hard drives. But we also use sentiment for this reason. I don’t keep my great-grandfather’s Bible – the text of which can be found anywhere – because it has value within a capitalist system that prioritizes stuff over people, but because it represents emotional connections and a personally significant history. Doctorow’s utopia acknowledges only the former, which it rejects.

This happens with food in the novel, too. Working in a walkaway kitchen is presented as an honour, but the food, no matter what form it takes, comes from a fabricator, which functionally isn’t much different from Soylent, the real-world meal-replacement sludge literally designed to minimize the disruption to productivity caused by a computer programmer’s need to eat.

All that being said, and to my own everlasting surprise – notwithstanding the philosophical objections to the novel’s milieu – I did eventually come to care about its characters. Doctorow somehow managed to make me feel their fear, hope, and love through all my frustrations with his tired engineer-as-superhero tropes, his clumsy dialogue, and his unnecessary technical detail. If readers can similarly fight their way through those things, there might be something of value to be found in the balance of the novel.