“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”, Alisdair Gray.
These words are an integral part of Walkaway, the novel by Cory Doctorow, where he has decided to do something very rare, instead of showing us a dystopia, he paints a utopia, or more precisely, a techno-utopia. In doing so he joins the ranks of a few science fiction writers that have decided to describe more positive futures than the bleak prospects our current reality hints at, and in doing so joins the ranks of authors such as Iain M. Banks, whose Culture novels are the golden standard of techno-utopianism.
According to William Gibson, the predictive value of science fiction is quite poor, and thankfully it is almost always wrong. Good science fiction does not really talk about the future, but it is rather a “selective amplification of the observed present”. Therefore, Doctorow doesn’t describe a utopia based on speculation, but shows us a future for which the seeds are already here: open source, 3D printing, maker culture, bioprinting, AI, and brain scanning. All of these are brought together with a new movement called the Walkaways, people who simply walk away from “default”, the name for our existing present.
The novel does start out as your average dystopia, describing a world that is plagued by climate change, environmental disasters, wars, and rampant economic inequality. Our present course is charted to its horrible conclusions, a nightmarish wasteland where governments are nothing more than fronts for the “zottas”, the few mega-multi-billionaires who control everything, the 0.0001%. These few have amassed fortunes that we cannot begin to fathom, while the vast majority of people live in poverty, fighting over the scraps left behind by the economic elite.
It is in this hellscape that the new economic and social movement arises thanks to post-scarcity economics and progressive social ideas. It’s difficult to pinpoint the politics of the Walkaway philosophy, by contrasting it to communism and libertarianism at various points it becomes clear that it is neither. There is some traditional anarchism, although as far as I remember Doctorow never uses the A word. Walkaway is some hybrid form of anarchism that can also be found in the Culture novels, it uses some voluntarism, collective consensus-building helped by self-organising open source software and pull-request governance; it has non-hierarchical organisation structures, distributed architectures, decentralisation and redundancy built-in to everything, with some post-scarcity economics to top it all off. Property is meaningless when you can just print and fabricate almost everything you need.
As an anarchist governance thought experiment, it has very interesting opposition to Libertarian strong-arm meritocracy. It is also a masterful indictment of the aggrandising privileged ideology of the economic elites, and this is often presented by the pathological self-confidence of the main villain, zotta Jacob Redwater. I found the open source ethos favoured throughout the novel to be a good blueprint for what a functional anarchy would actually look like.
The novel starts with a contrast between the dystopia and the seeds of the utopia. We start in dystopian Default following three characters that are dissatisfied with their reality, but they are not prepared to abandon it either until they suffer a police attack with drones after they attended a communist party. With nothing to lose, they walk away from default and are presented with the walkaway lifestyle by going to a bed-and-breakfast, which they found after reading forums and some wiki-how guide to becoming a walkaway. Here they encounter new economic and social realities, from lack of property to more open social norms such as communal bathing. We are also living in a “woke” social model, with open relationship and sexual models.
The conflict between Walkaway and Default becomes the central part of the novel, the zottas see the walkaways as an existential threat and start attacking various settlements, particularly after walkaway scientists manage to record consciousness, and therefore we are presented with the prospect of eternal digital life. The novel continues with this conflict, until at some point the superiority of walkaway lifestyle translates into more people joining in, while Default starts slowly dwindling, until at the end not even their paid thugs will enforce their dictates.
Spoiler alert, the good guys win.
This is an ideas book with lots of exposition of the technologies and the ideals of walkaway, and while it is fascinating, this can often detract from the story and the characters. Halfway through the book I realised that I really didn’t care about any of the characters, and even a shocking scene in which one of them dies left me cold. This is mostly because the protagonists spend quite a lot of their time making long expositions of the philosophy and its economic and social implications, and this stopped me from reading them as human beings, and more as descriptive agents. There are a few time lapses, which also took me out of the action, and the introduction of a new set of characters almost halfway didn’t help to get me to care about most of them. I understand why the various jumps and points of view were needed, but it detracted from the strength of characterisation.
I also found it slightly hard to believe that Default would not have collapsed earlier, particularly after it became possible to upload consciousness to a computer. I could not believe that people would stick to Default with nothing to lose.
However, these are just small complaints, the book was still a very good read, and as a digital rights geek I enjoyed the various nuggets here and there. There is a Brazilian airship called the “Gilberto Gil“, and I was delighted when it was revealed that the surname of one of the characters was “Jónsdóttir“. Towards the end a character is captured by Default and charged with hundreds of violations of every intellectual property right conceivable.
This is an important book for anyone interested in living as if they are in the early days of a better nation, goodness knows we need all the optimism we can get.