As a writer and futurist, Cory Doctorow makes a living trying to figure out how to build a better world. His latest novel, Walkaway, reads like culmination of his life’s work. Over a plot that spans several decades, he lays out a philosophy of post-scarcity utopianism that extends from the not-too-distant future to the furthest reaches of the ideal his heroes call, ironically and with utmost sincerity, “the first days of a better nation.”
Doctorow infuses his fantastical imaginings with a degree of sober realism, revealing the mistakes, missteps, and sacrifices that built this perfect world, and assembles a plot that both exploits and deconstructs post-cyberpunk utopian tropes, dismantling the very concept of a future utopia into its base components, and rebuilding it into a more interesting whole.
In this future, technological advancements in energy, production, and surveillance result in a fully-networked quasi-dystopian society where the capitalist “zottarich” who play at being robber barons are allowed to do whatever they please. Rather than live under the rule of an oppressive corporcracy, some people choose to go “walkaway,” leaving the grid to live off the land in collectivist enclaves. The novel details the future history of the movement, following its handful of protagonists as they leave their lives among the “default,” join the Walkaways in the wilds of Canada, and try to build the better utopia they always dreamed of. A leap in scientific progress and a careless choice leads them to the brink of war with default, and might destroy their future before it arrives.
Doctorow has written the idealized future before (Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom), and his greatest strength remains his grounded approach to utopia-building. It isn’t a book that focuses on the cool ideas so much as it does how those ideas should be implemented. Even in the early stages, going walkaway is something that requires an entirely new way of thinking, with participants abandoning property, individualism, and even the idea of quid pro quo to live among the various open-source collectives. Its progress is equally grounded, with the protagonists first figuring out how to contribute to their society, and then arriving at the eventual result through equal parts hard work, luck, and teamwork. Doctorow also deconstructs the idea that a big technological leap or one grand idea is all that’s needed for progress, with the Walkaways debating the merits of various ideas extensively before they finally implement them.
Along the way, Walkaway also deconstructs earlier works of techno-utopianism. The book opens with a “communist party;” a gathering of squatters using decommissioned 3D printers and drinking recycled beer is brutally shut down by the cops; characters’ weird aliases are discussed at length, with the more ridiculous ones getting discarded by their owners. The notion of the eccentric philanthropist is also thoroughly satirized; the closest match for the trope is a self-delusional sociopath who later has his adult daughter kidnapped. There are also decent arguments made both for and against brain uploading and the ethics of science in the form of a character who breaches those ethics, causing more harm than good. It says something that characters actually have to adapt their thinking. It says as much that Doctorow discusses at length where the grand ideas went wrong, and points out how to course correct.
Walkaway paints a picture of where our future should go, not just technologically, but also culturally, but unlike other post-cyberpunk utopias, it has clear eyes for the flaws in technology, people, and ideology. At its heart, it is a book that believes a better world really is possible if we can all work together to figure out how to make it. It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to lend a hand.