When I first had set out to write about Apocalyptic fiction, it was on the heels of reading author and blogger Cory Doctorow’s Wired.com article “Disaster’s Don’t Have to End In Dystopias.” With his new book Walkaway, Doctorow discusses how civilizations respond to disaster, in that they either try to formulate order or fall into disarray. He argues that, “The difference between utopia and dystopia isn’t how well everything runs. It’s about what happens when everything fails.” (Doctorow) I found this a delightful but confusingly complex realm to explore. It left me with many open ended questions about what it means to fail as a society. It seemed paradoxical that a utopia could fail. As Doctorow views it, the perfect state is a “daydream,” one which does not account for new and unknown hazards. This reminds me of the theory of “risk societies” brought up by Ulrich Beck, and how each fictional world is one imagining of a society fallen victim to a threat it has not anticipated. Doctorow continues by adding that the problem in Walkaway has become society itself. He argues that many dystopia disasters feature “prepper instincts,” as in instincts of survival of the fittest pitting man against man. But what if man controlled this instinct, and became self-aware of the violence started by scarcity? This is the beginning of the weirdness in Walkaway. I warn you, this will become a bit difficult to process without having read the novel.
Doctorow defines Walkaway as a utopia, despite the evidence of a world falling apart around his characters. In Walkaway, Doctorow imagines a world in which much of the world has exiled-itself from the brutally efficient society of the ultra-rich. The exiles, or “walkaways”, attempt to create a post-scarcity civilization while being slaughtered by the zillionaires who fear their radical ideology. To elaborate, they have achieved post-scarcity by sharing resources in a perfected form of socialism. All members of the community have equal means to create what is necessary to survive using various future-technology appliances. Their ultimate goal is to perfect the digitization of the human brain, making themselves immortal. Ultimately, the novel balances dystopian and post-apocalypse and transhuman motifs. As you can guess, this novel has been the newest, most complex, and most problematic book on my list.
The book follows Hubert, Natalie, and Seth, three early adults seeking a new like in the walkaway community. Walkways live in areas of the country abandoned by environmental disaster and decay. They recycle abandoned material and land, using advanced 3D-printers to suit their needs. Traditional society, called “default”, rejects them for various reasons. They could not find work. They were thrown out by their family. One character even cites her non-binary transgender identity as a factor for not agreeing with “default”. The walkaway community replaces this with absolute freedom. On paper, this sounds ridiculous. Somehow, Doctorow makes a logical pattern out of this “better nation” community in Walkaway.
Jason Sheehan wrote an NPR review that shares many of my views on Walkaway, especially on the matter that it is too strange to articulate certain aspects into words. I enjoyed how he called the novel “what comes after the slow burn apocalypse” in that like the Genesis story of Noah’s Ark, Walkaway discusses how “After the flood, this is how we rebuilt…” (Sheehan). This perhaps links well back into Doctorow’s Wired article on Walkaway, in that he mentions in passing how 2017 itself was full of disasters. Whether the disasters of this year will lead to a rebuilt utopia or a downward dystopia is for us to decide. After the flood, how will we rebuild?
I had originally turned-away from discussing this novel and article. I struggled to deal with the “digital singularity” aspect of this novel. Digital consciousness became a kind of “cop-out” to me, in that the characters “escape” the crumbling physical world for a digital landscape. Likewise, the social-political argument of class warfare between the ultra-rich and ultra-poor seemed like a thesis in itself. So I moth-balled this article, yet left Walkaway on my reading list.
As it is my tradition, I shine the house lights on you, dear reader, and ask:
What does or does not make sense about Walkaway to you? Are you more inclined to read some of Doctorow’s work? If you were me, what aspects of Doctorow would you include, if any?
Doctorow, Cory. “Disasters Don’t Have to End in Dystopias.” Wired, Conde Nast, 2 June 2017, www.wired.com/2017/04/cory-doctorow-walkaway/.
Doctorow, Cory. Walkaway: a Novel. Head of Zeus, Tor Books, 2017.
Sheehan, Jason. “In ‘Walkaway,’ A Blueprint For A New, Weird (But Better) World.” National Public Radio, 27 Apr. 2017, www.npr.org/2017/04/27/523587179/in-walkaway-a-blueprint-for-a-new-weird-but-better-world.