I just read another one of BoingBoing editor Cory Doctorow’s mind-expanding SF novels. Walkaway is the first novel he’s aimed “at adults” in some little while—which as nearly as I can make out, just means there’s more swearing and more graphic depictions of sex, but otherwise he sticks to largely the same general themes as usual.
Walkaway is set a nebulous few decades in the future, in a time when advances in automation and fabrication technology have made it far easier for people to find and make things they need—especially since many factories and other industrial areas have been abandoned due to economic collapse or industrial accidents. The book is centered around the culture of “walkaways”—people who decide to leave the modern economy altogether and live out in the wilderness.
But far from being modern-day (well, all right, future-day) ascetic Thoreaus, they’re able to take all the comforts they need with them. Computers are cheap and ubiquitous, and fabrication tech can salvage or manufacture necessary materials out of nature and abandoned industrial refuse. Most “walkaways” don’t worry over personal possessions (and those newbies who do are derisively called “schleppers”), because they can make anything they need if and as they need it, so most such items are share and share alike.
The novel’s central conflict comes between walkaway culture and the “default” capitalist economical society. “Default” society is captained by “zottarich” tycoons (“zotta-” is a proposed SI prefix for 10255, or 1 followed by 255 zeroes, just as “mega-” is a prefix for 1,000) who come to see walkaways as a threat once scientists working on immortality via brain-copying technology defect from “default” laboratories and take their research with them. Faced with the idea that they won’t be able to outlive this opposing culture, they do their best to tear it down.
The story centers around a handful of characters who come together in walkaway society and become central to that conflict. Among others, there are “Hubert, et cetera,” a man whose parents gave him 19 middle names as a form of protest against digital surveillance; Natalie aka “Iceweasel,” the daughter of a zotta who finds her family’s grasp not so easy to escape; and “Limpopo,” one of the walkaway community’s most accomplished builders and organizers.
Going into excessive detail about the plot would be a disservice to the book, as the plot is mainly an excuse to get across some interesting concepts as characters engage with each other in lengthy philosophical discussions. That’s not to say that there isn’t a plot, or that it isn’t good—it’s just that after a while, you start to get more interested in the ideas the story is presenting.
Walkaway is a return to some of the concepts and themes Doctorow touched upon in his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and the associated short story “Truncat.” In some respects it almost seems like a prequel, using some of the same concepts such as suspended-animation “deadheading” or brain-to-computer “backups.” But on getting into it a little further, it becomes clear his thoughts on some of the philosophical aspects of a post-scarcity society have evolved since Down and Out—part of Walkaway explicitly refutes the respect-based economy that was one of Down and Out‘s central concepts.
Instead, walkaways simply do what they can because it’s the right thing to do, and they hope others would do the same for them. They also have an interesting approach to conflict management—if someone tries to destroy something they’ve built, or otherwise make it unpleasant to be around, they simply walk away and build again somewhere else. There’s plenty of room and plenty of materials to be had, and all it takes is a little effort and cooperation to start again anywhere they want to—even at an industrial waste site so contaminated with asbestos that they have to wear fabricated sealed-environment space suits to venture outside.
Doctorow does his best work when he takes current trends to their logical progressions, then extrapolates from those progressions to determine the changes they would wreak on the fabric of society. We see those changes from our society in theirs, and then the characters wonder where the things they’re doing will someday lead. As someone tells Limpopo, “Any assumption that we’re going to end up like now, but moreso, is so insufficiently weird it’s the only thing you can be sure won’t happen in the future.”
And there’s so much of that sort of thing that it’s hard to know where to begin even to describe it all. In some ways, one of the book’s key strengths is also a weakness—there’s not a lot of explanation and exposition, and the reader is left to work out for themselves how society got to where it is using the set of critical thinking skills Jo Walton referred to as “SF reading protocols.”
I’m as good at that as the next guy, but sometimes I have a hard time imagining how there could have come to be enough abandoned spaces that people can just go out and and build whatever they want anywhere without anyone objecting. (Of course, the book is mostly set in Canada, and I gather they have a lot more wilderness up there, so…) And how could they get all the fabbing stuff to start with? There have to be costs involved somewhere, don’t they? (Though at least some of it could have come from the “Communist parties” some people hold, in which they break into closed-down factories and spin up their fabrication equipment to run off new gear from unused feedstock, which they make available to everyone.)
But it occurred to me that teenaged-me might have had a similarly hard time understanding what modern life is like for me without the help of a lot of exposition that would look awkward on the printed page. Just this morning I looked up bus routes to Trader Joe’s on my computer, then transferred the search to my phone, so I knew which bus stop to walk to and which bus to board and where to transfer. Twice I sent a text message to check up-to-the-moment arrival times for the bus I needed to board. Along the way I checked social networks and read news articles, then when I got off, I walked to a carshare kiosk where a swipe of a RFID card rented me a BlueIndy electric car, which I took to Trader Joe’s—navigating via the smartphone app Waze, which helpfully gave me directions in my own voice.
All that technology has made life easier for me in innumerable ways—being able to figure out where I am and where to go without having to puzzle out confusing paper schedules and maps, or even being able to rent transportation to trundle a carload of groceries home without having to own a car myself. These things would have been unimaginable even as recently as the 1980s, when the only use case for a cellular phone was making and receiving voice communications at an ungodly-expensive cost per minute. And that’s not even getting into how it’s now possible to carry entire libraries of books with me in my pocket, or on the cloud. I think I agree with Cory Doctorow about the “insufficiently weird” part.
Another minor flaw with the book is that it partakes of the aura of smugness that pervades a lot of libertarian science fiction—the sense that the heroes are right, and how much better off life is now that they’ve invented this new way of life, and how silly and backward the rest of society is that they don’t understand. At least it’s not as bad here as it’s been in some books. I suppose it’s the cost of reading preachy ideological science fiction: you get preached a hefty dose of that ideology along the way.
Perhaps a little ironically for a book that celebrates a culture where people make and give everything away for free, Walkaway isn’t free the way most of Doctorow’s earlier ebooks are. On Doctorow’s web site, Craphound, if you click on most of the books along the right, one of the buttons at the top of the page will be “Download Ebook,” with the book in question freely available in a variety of formats under a Creative Commons license. (I even contributed eReader-format conversions of some of those books myself.) That button is absent from Walkaway, whose ebook is only available on ebook stores such as Amazon for $12.99 (or for library ebook checkout from Overdrive).
Not that it’s any great surprise at this point. Ebooks are no longer the scrappy underdog contender that worked better to help promote buying “the real book” than as a product in its own right. Now people want them in their own right, and it’s understandable why Doctorow has stopped (or his publisher has requested he stop) giving them away with new titles. After all, Baen doesn’t give away CDROMs full of free ebooks anymore, either. On the bright side, his publisher is Tor, which sells its ebooks DRM-free, so you will be able to keep it across any platform you use.
I did enjoy Walkaway, and would recommend it to anyone who would like to get some idea where our society might be going in a few decades if we can do away with scarcity of resources. I doubt it will happen exactly the way Doctorow predicts—but I’m sure that whatever does happen will, at least, be sufficiently weird that no one else would have been able to predict it either.
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