Walkaway review

Walkaway Cover

A review of Cory Doctorow's 2017 science fiction novel.

In Cory Doctorow's Walkaway a near future utopia is forming, as more and more people realize they are living in a dystopia. People can produce almost any goods they need with 3D printers, and unlimited technology and resources would be available to all, were it not for an authoritarian ruling class defending their own dominance. The novel depicts a populace that is intelligent, highly trained, and ready to produce the necessities and luxuries of life on their own terms, free from bosses and the false scarcity of an economy based on production for exchange value.

Predictably, the dominant society, "Default," is an obstacle to the new. It’s stuck in the old capitalist modes of work, social hierarchy, debt, and wealth conferring power to a minority. That minority doesn't want to let go of the status quo, and will disrupt, and even kill the walkaways who are trying to forge a post-capitalist world of equality.

The book is driven by the kind of conversations you would have with your best commie and anarchist friends. The walkaways strive to understand how they will fit, as ex-Default people, into the new social relations based on plenty rather than the precarity of the capitalist world of work. There are those who insist on score keeping, on a kind of currency based on who contributes the most or solves the most problems. This is strongly challenged as an unnecessary and counter- productive measuring of "merit," which serves to separate people, recreating needless guilt, shame, and negative reenforcement that is better suited to the old world. The discussions about merit were among the most interesting to me, resonating with my own thoughts on “professionalism” and remuneration in companies and institutions, always creating resentment and unhealthy competition based on bourgeois individuality, or at best, the defense of certain departments or sectors at the expense of others.

The walkaways must struggle for their new world. Sometimes that means evading incursions by reactionary walkaways, or the Default society’s armed elements. Default is far better equipped to survey, harass, and even kill those in the newly forming utopias, but the balance may be changing, and networks of accessible technology may tip the balance in favor of the walkaways if enough people join in.

Looming over the joys and challenges of walkaway culture is an emerging technology that could offer a form of human (?) immortality. This is a system of mind scanning, an uploading of consciousness into silicon computer casings. Walkaway technicians struggle over definitions and the parameters of consciousness as they develop this technology. Could this be one step to different types of immortality? Is it really the same person at all? While the obvious answer is “no,” a print of your consciousness isn’t you, Doctorow develops the possibilities to make this more than a sci-fi diversion. In the context of the world of Walkaway, I interpret this storyline as addressing the individual achievement of power within the broader context of the community, one aspect of the full flowering of a social human being, which communism would help usher in. You can see it as a metaphor, or as an honest grappling with what might be possible in the future. How far can our species go in creating a world of equality and fulfillment for the individual, and peace and equality among us all?

With computer consciousness, all manner of glitches and hacks could also create hellish scenarios of torture, an ultimate loss of control and safety, and the book lightly touches on these themes. This element of immortality might have been left out, providing for a different focus on social production and relations, but it doesn't prevent Doctorow from examining those subjects deeply.

I saw a tweet by Doctorow pointing out that sci-fi usually doesn't come true as predicted. That’s no reason not to construct worlds in which alternate histories and futures can play out. The ideas are tested and challenged. First, there is self-doubt among the protagonists, and also concern over whether one’s fellow walkaways are authentically revolutionary or just damaged Default personalities looking for an angle based on their dead ideology. Then there are the counter revolutionary voices: the paid servants of Default who have not walked away, the vulgar pragmatists, the rational-sounding, rich fucking asshole psychos, get a lot of conversation time too. It is a contest, and ideas are challenged from multiple perspectives which makes for an interesting read.

If there is something missing, it isn't the issue of class per se. That subject is always present in the discussions and events of the book. It's more the lack of organized confrontation between class conscious proletarians and the ruling and owning class. That's not necessarily what this book is about though. In this scenario, you have something of a Star Trek solution to the problem of production, and the social relations that largely stem from them. In Star Trek the Next Generation, it was replicators that made scarcity a thing of the past. In Walkaway, anyone can have just about anything they need, via 3D printing, and there are new and sustainable methods of producing foods and chemicals. The terrain of battle becomes more about ideology. We're not in that world, but, while the near future technologies of abundance are not real, neither is the "scarcity" we face in our present system.

Posted By

Comrade Motopu
Mar 1 2018 23:41

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  • The book is driven by the kind of conversations you would have with your best commie and anarchist friends.

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Juan Conatz
Mar 4 2018 23:20

Interesting review. Never heard of this book or the author.