Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

In the summer of 2012, I read everything that Cory Doctorow had published to date. I was in an internship where I wasn’t particularly busy and I read a lot of public domain books that I could easily access for free on my work computer (I also read a lot of classics that summer)(mad shoutout to Project Gutenberg for keeping me relatively sane that summer). If you didn’t know, Mr. Doctorow publishes all of his works under a Creative Commons license, and he himself is a very prominent advocate in the field of copyright law. His works often hinge on similar themes – the ownership of ideas, the advance of technology, how technology interfaces with humanity and the societal changes that come about from that. His books, possibly more than any other author, both terrify me and give me a great deal of hope. Walkaway was no different, and this one more than the others, I think, is going to require me to talk about my politics here (and not just because I didn’t have a blog when I last read any of his books). Specifically, I want to talk about communism. But let’s talk about the book itself first.

Walkaway is set in a near future world (specifically later revealed to be the 2070s and beyond), where although post-scarcity is possible, it hasn’t yet happened due to the merciless grip of the 1% on the resources, the money, and the jobs. This is a world that’s ripe to become a post-work economy… so a subset of people decide to walk away and make it happen themselves. Between impossibly efficient matter recyclers, an expansively available internet, and the willingness of people to cooperate and collaborate, they begin to form their own societies, in lands once deemed unlivable by the corporate and government interests (all but indistinguishable by this point in time, which is hardly a far cry from today’s world). 
The book follows our three main characters – Hubert, Etc. (who has 19 middle names), Seth, and Natalie, who all decide to walk away together, after one too many disastrous police crackdowns on their “communist parties” (Natalie gets a great line early in the book, where she informs Hubert, Etc. “Communism is a fun thing to do, but not something I’d ever want to be”). The book follows a pretty significant time frame – it’s not explicit how long it takes place over, but at the start of the book, Natalie is about 20 years old, and by the end, she’s entering her middle age with a couple of children, the oldest of whom is 10. That’s a lot of ground for one book to cover, but I think Doctorow pulls it off pretty well. I do think the transitions between time periods were kind of abrupt – there were no real markers in the text when it was happening – but overall, it was solidly done.

Over the course of the story, we get to meet a lot of people and see their reasons and motivations for walking away. All of the primary and secondary characters have distinct personalities and histories, and as such, the interactions between them are really interesting to watch. It is particularly interesting to watch their reactions to the newly-developed technology of the walkaway – the discovery of immortality. A team of scientists find a mechanism to make true brain uploads work, essentially meaning that anyone with access to this technology can ensure that they will never truly die. Their body might, but their mind will not. For obvious reasons, the mainstream world – usually referred to here as “default” – is not okay with the walkaways having this technology while they themselves do not.

This is the type of setting and premise that Doctorow in particular excels at. As best as I know, most if not all of his works are set in the near future – probably within 100 years if not less. The technologies and developments presented by his stories are not outrageous, far-off dreams; they’re distinctly plausible scientific advancements that have their roots in real work being done right now. Doctorow is a very scientifically literate writer, and that definitely works to his benefit here. The other thing that I find is somewhat unique about his works is that he has an excellent grasp on what these emerging technologies would do to our society. “How would society change if ______” is basically science fiction’s whole thing, but Doctorow is great at crafting highly realistic responses and outcomes, to both inspiring and haunting ends.

This book, I’d say, is very much a product of the time that it was written. The economic tensions of our world today, ever boiling towards class warfare, are right there in the story. How technology plays a role in that tension is very much examined here, I’d say. As more highly advanced technology and computing becomes more and more available to the masses – it was still within my lifetime (I am 23 at the time of writing this) that a majority of American households did not have a computer, and now nearly everyone has one in their pocket – that tension actually increases. The spread of information expedites revolution. We live in turbulent times and the increased globalization of the world has allowed people to see the myriad ways in which things could be improved – or even just opened their eyes to how bad things really are.

Fully automated luxury communism is a concept I was introduced to when reading an advance review of this book – accompanied by the tagline “work like artisans, live like kings”, how could I not be intrigued? There’s a lot of other people who can explain this far better than I can (especially when I’m supposed to be talking about the book and not real life), but in essence: the increasingly automated workforce should not be regarded as a bad thing, with the evil robots coming to take our jobs. Rather, we should view it as an opportunity to improve the quality of life for the workers who are being replaced. Establishing things like a universal income, an 8-10 hour work week (primarily on quality control), the freedom to pursue learning and trades and leisure as one pleases, freedom from the fear that there will not be enough of anything (money, food, time, health, life) – work like artisans, live like kings. Is it pie-in-the-sky thinking, especially with our current world seemingly being run by fascists who want to drag us back kicking and screaming into the dark ages? Yeah, probably. 

But for me, that’s where the hopeful part of Doctorow’s work comes in. His protagonists – in all his books, not just Walkaway – go through some serious hell to get their happy ending. The walkaway revolution, as it were, does not come easily, and no revolutions in the real world do either. People fight and people die and people suffer for these ideals, but in the end – in fiction, at least – the advance of progress to a better world is not halted, and those who would stop it are the villains. If there’s one thing that I think could be taken out of all of Doctorow’s books, it’s that the tide of new technology never stops, and you can either fight its effects on the world or you can go with it and learn how to use the technology to improve things. There’s a lot of “technology is evil” and “technology is scary” thinking out there in the world, but he does a really good job of showing the true neutrality of technology. It is only good or evil in the hands of somebody using it for good or evil.

Reading a Cory Doctorow book always manages to leave a pretty serious imprint on me, for a significant amount of time. He wraps up the lessons and morals in a tasty, tasty story, one with lots of real people to relate to and adventurous, exciting plots, and oh yeah, there’s a lot of sex in this one. He doesn’t shy away from including it in his other books (even his YA ones), but this one has a great deal more. I actually typically don’t like reading sex scenes written by men – there just always seems to be something missing or slightly off that prevents me from enjoying it. This has proven to be a rare exception to that, which – in addition to everything else I’ve said here – is a real testament to Doctorow’s skill as a writer. I just hope that when the real revolution comes and the post-scarcity, post-work world can begin anew, I hope it is just as sexy as it was written here. …And that I’m alive for it.

This book is extremely thought-provoking and I say that with the best possible intentions. You won’t be distracted from the story by the implications of the technological and societal advances both implied and spelled out by this book. But you may just spend hours thinking about it afterwards, wondering if you would muster the courage and will (or just be so frustrated with the status quo) to walk away yourself.

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