My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Too often, our science fiction tells us easy stories of how technology, either misapplied or misunderstood, runs amok to enslave and debase humanity. The narrative arrow points directly from a relatively decent today to a dark, oppressive tomorrow. In these stories, technology is a malevolent character, presented as an external force that subjugates and depraves. Such science fiction, think the Matrix, calls upon a single woke hero to band with a small group of the oppressed to fight the power and restore light in the darkest hour. I used to enjoy this story. Call it the spectacle of despair.
Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway points the arrow the other way. Our present day is the dystopia and creative, generous communities of shared effort use technologies to make possible a better world.
The novel opens in a non-specific future that feels like the very near future, say next Tuesday. Post-scarcity technologies have solved problems of labor and distribution of goods. Food, clothes, shelter, and medicine are all readily available upon demand through a combination of 3D printing, biochemical alchemy and the wide scale distribution of scientific knowledge. Despite this, the richest continue to get exponentially richer while everyone else stays stuck. There’s no need for inequality except that the uber-rich, the “zotta rich”, need someway to perpetuate their specialness. They need to keep score. This status quo world is called Default, the intolerable made tolerable by an industry of mass distraction, a relentless flood of entertainments to placate the discontent. The disaffected drop off out of their dystopian lives by “walking away”, the term for leaving the life of consumerist consumption to join a loose network of makers building a post-capitalist, post-consumerist society.
The walk away world is utopian. Walk aways live in leaderless maker communities organized around the basic principle that people must use their talents as they see fit to make things better. Distributed information networks get the people, the tools and the resources to the right place at the right time. If someone screws up, someone else comes along to fix the problem. No blame. No credit. Just people doing meaningful work that matters.
Oh, and sex. There’s plenty of well-written sex, a rarity in science fiction. Believable without being smutty.
The premise of Walkaway is that the default conditions cannot be fought on their own terms. The only way to overcome them is to disengage, to walk away. When the walk aways discover the ability to copy and upload human consciousness into the Internet, they find the ultimate tool of resistance. A kind of digital life after death. Doctorow’s exploration of artificial intelligence and digital immortality is exquisitely rendered in its balance between humor and existential horror. This is a joyful, serious story.
Walkaway is Cory Doctorow’s best written book to date. He pushes further into themes of post-scarcity society, digital immortality and how finding the right work makes life meaningful. If you’ve read Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom you will recognize these themes. They find fuller, more satisfying exploration here.