We are not living in an optimistic era. The past years have seen the West stumble from crisis to crisis, whilst our stories have remained bleak. Over the past several decades the speculative world has leaned toward the negative: our most famed works of science fiction present grim worlds conjured by Orwell, Moore, Atwood, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Clarke, or Dick. When we look ahead we see darkness, and as a result dystopia has become a defining feature of our culture.
With his tenth novel, Cory Doctorow seeks to buck that trend. Though Walkaway features a familiarly dystopian society, the focus remains resolutely on its alternative—on those literally walking away from our own grim futures in hope of something better. With this shift in focus, Doctorow attempts something both difficult and rare: to provide us with utopia. It’s a risky endeavour, and a lot can go wrong when you present a hopeful tomorrow to a cynical audience.
Walkaway begins in “Default”—quite simply the default world of violent capitalism, a setting familiar both in popular fiction and real life. The government is dominated by corporate power, the police act with increasingly callous brutality, and poverty is omnipresent. At the same time, technological marvels and colourful consumerism serve as important distractions from pain and injustice. The novel’s dual themes of optimism and cruelty are firmly established, as the tone flits between the playfully brutal realities of mid-21st century Toronto.
Despite Default’s common (cyberpunk-ish) setting, the novel filled me with speculative delight from its very first chapter, as it builds on current trends and presents realistic outcomes. It’s clear from the outset that Doctorow knows his world to the smallest detail, giving us insights via everything from slang, to hairstyles, to popular drinks. Almost nothing we’re currently developing is overlooked, whether it’s 3D printing or the increasingly popular homebrew movement. In fact, I have yet to read a work of speculative fiction which feels as connected to our own world as Walkaway, and it’s a spectacular accomplishment.
This prescience extends to Walkaway’s relationships. As a queer reader I’m turned off by resolutely heterosexual futures, and one of the most personal and satisfying ways Doctorow accomplishes his speculative feat is found in his portrayal of sexuality. Every single character is presented as pansexual, and within the text this is something so normal that it’s barely mentioned. The book’s protagonists have sexual relationships with partners of multiple genders, and the storyline’s central romance is found between two women (an intergenerational romance at that). This may not seem so significant to heterosexual readers, but speculative fiction featuring entirely hetero casts will feel as dated in thirty years’ time as works featuring entirely docile women do right now.
Yet for all the well-researched detail, Doctorow’s novel would fail to stand out were we to never leave Default. Dystopian fables can be wonderful, but none have prevented the scenarios they warn against: 1984 didn’t stop omnipresent state surveillance any more than Blade Runner cowed corporate domination. It’s ultimately among the walkaways themselves that the novel finds its footing. From Default we follow Etcetera (the son of Anonymous activists), his friend Seth, and their companion Iceweasel as they say goodbye to the world they know and join those forming new societies in the Canadian wilderness.
It’s here that we see Walkaway not simply as a novel, but a manifesto. This may seem like a strong assessment, but Doctorow demands we read his work as such, referencing prominent political philosophers such as Bakunin and even nudging the fourth wall by directly comparing itself to other novels-turned-proclamations:
We can live like it’s the first days of a better world, not like it’s the first pages of an Ayn Rand novel.
In fact, “first days of a better world” form the novel’s arc words, repeated (often with variations) throughout the entire book. We’re never allowed to lose hope, to ever lose sight of a better society. It follows a tradition set by Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (though despite the title, Walkaway has little in common with her work The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas).
Walkaway life is based on principles of post-scarcity socialism/anarchism, though the text carefully avoids using 19th-century terminology to describe a 21st-century movement. When Iceweasel throws a “communist party,” she declares that “Communism is an interesting thing to do, [but] nothing I ever want to be.” This pragmatic idealism flows throughout, with automated systems used to construct egalitarian walkaway housing projects from rubble and ruins, whilst essentials such as tools and clothing are constructed via highly advanced printers then shared among the community:
The cure had been the realization that everything was everywhere, stuff in walkaway was a normalized cloud of potential, on-demand things.
It’s not dissimilar to Star Trek’s system of replicators, and the author provides astounding levels of detail into the exact function and design of each device. The plot picks up pace as the walkaways even find a technological means of transcending death, with this mechanical salvation providing much of the story’s drama. Much of this is hard science fiction, but it provides a roadmap to a society on the verge of post-scarcity:
They used to think everything got changed by technology. Now we know the reason people are willing to let technology change their worlds is shit is fucked up for them, and they don’t want to hang onto what they’ve got.
Despite Doctorow’s meticulous attention to technology, the real joys of walkaway life are found in its culture. It’s instantly familiar to anyone involved with the Radical Faeries or other queer pagan movements—complete with cuddle puddles, casual nudity, and choosing your own name—to the point that it’s difficult to believe that the author hasn’t had direct experience of them himself. Such references remain extremely rare in popular culture (outside of films such as Short Bus), and it was wonderful to see queer utopian communities of our own era being used to model speculative fiction; particularly as someone who’s been involved with such groups for many years.
This isn’t to say that walkaway culture is harmonious, or even that walkaways have political consensus. The culture rejects money, but there are conflicts over exactly how their post-scarcity society should operate. For example, should hours worked be monitored? Is hierarchy acceptable if it’s based on hard graft and merit, rather than arbitrary wealth? The novel thoroughly works out its own system of ethics and morality, and leaves the reader to judge the results.
However, whereas Walkaway excels as a manifesto, it’s often weaker as a novel. Speech is stilted and excessively theoretical; ideas are at the forefront of most exchanges between characters, even lovers. Even parents and their children. Emotional substance comes a distant second, and unfortunately problems with characterisation extend beyond dialogue. So far all I’ve mentioned about Iceweasel, Seth, and Etcetera are their names—and that’s because there’s not much else to say about them. They’re likeable, but they come across as distant acquaintances, even when you’ve been following them for hundreds of pages. This isn’t helped by the jumps forward in time and the sheer quantity of characters introduced, many of whom vanish after a chapter. Each is designed to carry ideas and plot points, and though I cared about Doctorow’s lovingly constructed world, I cared far less for its individual inhabitants.
There are even points where the novel fails in its otherwise impeccable speculation. It’s wonderful that Walkaway features a trans character—a main character at that—but the author seems incapable of mentioning her without also referencing her genitalia Her body is objectified in a way cis characters’ aren’t, and it’s jarring. Representation is a wonderful thing, but it has to be done well.
Then there’s the novel’s other arc words: “special snowflake.” Now I know I’m a self-righteous social-justice-obsessed millennial, but it grated every time I read this term, and it’s used excessively. The phrase appears more often than in its originator, Fight Club. In fairness Doctorow doesn’t use “special snowflake” in the same manner as aggressive alt-right trolls, but as our own period’s reactionary equivalent of “political correctness” it already makes the text feel dated, which is a shame considering its prescience elsewhere. Even if the term doesn’t rub on you like a rusted cheese grater, it will by the twentieth time it’s used.
Some issues pertain to the genre as a whole. One of the biggest issues facing utopian fiction lies with urban space: Piercy, Le Guin, and Robinson all construct their societies in some form of wilderness, be it a post-war rural landscape or simply a new planet—leaving those of us living in Earthbound cities behind. At first glance Walkaway seems to do the same: Iceweasel, Seth, and Etcetera’s first actions are to walk straight from the Default city of Toronto into the communities of the countryside. Yet the myth of an expansive land conveniently empty and ripe for colonisation has plagued utopian thought for centuries, particularly among those heading for North America. Abolitionist communities in Tennessee, libertarian socialists in Pennsylvania, Puritan colonies in New England, vegetarians in Kansas, Transcendents in Massachusetts, Mormons in Utah, and anarchists in Ohio have all contributed to the forced removal of native populations, regardless of how virtuous their intentions or how noble their goals.
This point is particularly well-made in Jane Smiley’s The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, which follows a group of liberal abolitionists as they move to Kansas to help keep it from entering the Union as a slave state. The native population are always in the distance, slowly pushed further and further away by both sides of an alien ideological struggle. Yes, the goals of the abolitionist colonists are well-intentioned, but the wilderness is less uninhabited than they imagine. Sadly in the worlds of many science fiction writers, the bid for utopia causes characters (and their authors) to make the same mistakes in the 22nd century as in the 19th. Walkaway goes further than its counterparts in actually engaging with First Nation communities, but they’re relatively minor to the plot, and the novel still falls prey to this “empty wilderness” trope.
The other issue with utopian fiction’s reliance on “wilderness” lies in its sheer impracticality. What about those of us living in heavily-urbanised Europe, or eastern Asia? Urban areas are cultural incubators; utopian ideals themselves have almost all been conjured from the confines of the city. Cities also provide much-needed diversity, including room for queers and people of colour. Whilst many have dreamed of idealised rural communities, it the metropolis which comes closest to realising humanity’s potential. What good is utopia if it doesn’t include apartment dwellers?
It’s here that Doctorow dodges the pitfalls of the genre; rather than leaving us urbanites to rot, walkaways colonise cities abandoned by capital—the numerous Detroits of the mid-21st century—and in doing so reclaim the metropolis itself. Akron, Liverpool, Ivrea, Minsk, Lodz, Cape Town, and Monrovia are all claimed by the post-scarcity movement of the walkaways. One walkaway encapsulates this urban-grasping mood with the rather succinct: “Not Walkaway: walk towards. Fuck, run towards.” The ultimate goal isn’t to establish an entirely separate world which leaves the majority, nor to simply rely on the problematic idea of unclaimed wilderness. We all have the possibility of becoming walkaways, and as a result we’re presented with something bolder and more ambitious than most utopian fiction preceding it.
All this leaves us with a remarkable, imperfect book. As a manifesto it excels, demonstrating the most realistic utopia I’ve ever read. As a novel it’s greatly enjoyable, but not without its flaws. In some ways this seems inevitable; it’s hard to see how Doctorow could have written such a compelling vision whilst dedicating the space necessary to in-depth character development. It sacrifices the personal for the political, and honestly this did nothing to harm my enjoyment in reading it, nor did it diminish the power of its vision. This book genuinely inspired me.
Though we are living through a turbulent decade, Doctorow presents an optimistic, realistic future, whose ideals and goals are within grasp:
We’re not making a world without greed … We’re making a world where greed is a perversion.
Yes, the old world is crumbling, but Doctorow makes clear this gives us the opportunity to build something even better from the rubble. It may not be a literary masterpiece, but with its grounded focus in utopian alternatives Walkaway could well be the most significant novel of the tens.