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The Lost Cause coverIn his latest fiction, Doctorow seems to be trying to find an answer to a very contemporary problem: what do you do with people who are hell-bent on messing up every good thing that you and your community might have achieved? How do you coexist with people who do not share your sense of reality, of the purpose of a society, of what a good life entails? Can you even share space with them in the first place? Should you try to?

The Lost Cause is presented as a novel, but it reads more like a thought experiment, a prescient warning, and a meditation on media polarization, all rolled up into one nifty package. So the book is hard for me to review because, for the most part, I’m not entirely sure what it is trying to be. Given that it is presented as a science fiction novel, however, let’s start with the basics.

At a plot level, the novel follows high school graduate Brooks Palazzo as he navigates the world of Burbank, California, thirty years into the future. The effects of climate change are more visible in the United States by this time: weather patterns have changed, wildfires are rampant and unpredictable, and coastal cities across the country are submerging due to the rising sea levels, all of which give rise to refugee populations moving across the country in search for more habitable places to live.

Brooks is the son of environmental activists who died fighting wildfires and was raised by his very conservative, very Maga, grandfather. Brooks himself is of a progressive bent and as such he often finds himself at odds with the views held by his grandfather and his friends.

And this tension lies at the core of the book, in the conflict between progressive initiatives spearheaded and operationalised by a bygone government and angry old men “armed to the teeth” who are set against any sort of social change. This framing takes our increasingly polarized political climate to an extreme where every issue, every initiative, only has two sides—for or against. If you’ve sunk an embarrassing amount of time on what was formerly known as Twitter, like I did, you’d be forgiven for thinking that that’s how the world actually is: that there are no nuances to any perspectives, and we are all in a militant death battle for survival. Indeed, this book seems to be written with the energy of the Trump years, where radical progressivism seems possible, and yet so out of reach because of a small but loud, and potentially violent, minority of people who are against change. Where the only perspectives that get any airtime are a loud activism or loud opposition and guns. Maga in this book is a noun, a vibe, a movement, stripped of its 2016 contexts but keeping the anti-immigrant, pro-gun sentiments and the performative red hats.

For me, though, the book didn’t work on a plot or character level. Brooks had a very real chance of being a nuanced, complicated person stuck between two conflicting movements, questioning each of their claims and outcomes. Instead, we see a young man with a firm belief in his ideal—someone who, as a nineteen-year-old, has already considered every possible opposition to his arguments, and is sure that he would never change his mind, and neither would anyone else. Doubt, for Brooks, and for the book, exists only fleetingly, and even then only to underscore one’s commitments.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. We do need people of steadfast, unshakable idealism working to make the world a better place. I’d argue that this book’s practical idealism is its greatest gift!

Take this conversation for example. It comes from the first half of the book where Brooks is talking about (spoiler alert) the death of his grandfather. His community is there for him, institutions seem to be working in a way that helps him, even if the dialogue seems to mimic a grief handbook.

“Oh, man. That sounds intense. Are you okay for money and stuff?”

I shrugged. “I think so. The credit union had just upgraded to comply with the new probate rules, so they let me into Gramp’s checking account after he died to pay for expenses and the funeral. Whenever I need a bag or two of groceries I just do some Green New Deal stuff around town, but it’s just a holding pattern. I just can’t seem to get anything started—not the house, not going down the coast, not getting to university.”

“Maybe you should see a counselor. It sounds like you’ve been through a lot.”

“I did some online counseling, and it helped a little, but maybe I should do some more.”

“Maybe you should.” She gripped my shoulder and gave it a friendly shake. “Maybe you just need a little perspective, you know? Like, I’m still living with my family and I love them all, but they drive me crazy. And that Green New Deal work you’re doing? I know it can feel like shitwork, but remember that you’re making an actual difference. You’re literally saving our city—our civilization—our species!”

I laughed. “You sound like Hartounian.” She laughed too.

What I do find issue with is that Brooks easily finds a community to help him realize his ideas into action, and finds a productive way to spend his energy in work, political organizing, and activism. There is barely any soul-searching involved, and most of the conflict in the book is external, against the big, bad Maga people who do not let Brooks and his friends build housing for refugees. In a book ostensibly about change and progress, it’s funny how little anyone actually changes their mind or develops as a character. Eventually, it gets tedious to read a three-hundred-plus-page book with the same sort of lack of nuance that you find elsewhere in your media diets.

All of that said, to look at this book at only a plot and character level would be to do a disservice to the project that Doctorow has set in front of us. This is a book of ideas, of real progressive and actionable ideas, that imagines what a heady mix of willpower and technology can get us.

Brooks’s world is an ostentatiously more hopeful one than that in which we currently live, even despite the climate-change-related challenges: a Green New Deal has been passed, bringing with it a jobs guarantee and community-oriented green work; a progressive president outlawed guns and packed the courts; there is technology (and dedicated people) who can build livable housing in no time; we see solar farms generating clean energy and people spending their time to maintain them; there are impassioned city council meetings with folks actively caring about the decisions that their communities make.

There’s even a neighborhood planning session, which was delightful to read unfolding. In addition to sitting around and complaining about the lack of housing and resources, Brooks and his new friends casually start to design what they hope their neighborhood could look like given some willpower and effort.

I mirrored his work on my screen and started tapping around, finding a mode that let me tap into the city street plan and start dragging that around, and before long, I was transforming the whole Verdugo corridor into high-rises with a light-rail line down the middle of it, anchored to a subway station where the old strip mall was currently languishing, part-occupied, mostly used as a skate park and a weekend craft market.

I zoomed out and saw that my own crude high-density corridor was being polished by Phuong’s housemates, who abandoned their work on the hypothetical high-rise we were going to build on Gramps’s lot in order to create green roofs, vertical farms, parkettes, a community center added to the main branch library at Buena Vista. I watched with my mouth open as they worked together, like musicians improvising a jam session, except they were improving a whole neighborhood, and I could tab over to the spreadsheets where there were build plans, bills of materials, critical path and building-code variations we’d have to file for.

There’s an infectious strain of idealistic hope running through the book that earnestly believes in the power of people and communities to solve problems.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Doctorow’s background, the book reminds me of the tech optimism that I grew up with in the early 2000s and the belief that the internet and other technologies would change the world for the better. But instead of tech, the book directs optimism towards people, societies, and the choices that they make. There is a fundamental belief in the existence of a better world and the determination to work for it. The quote "Yours is the first generation in a century that did not grow up fearing for your future" is in this novel a talisman, a motivator, and an ideal that the characters turn to and struggle with.

The book shows us an alternative to the doom and gloom that often accompanies the machinations of politics for most people today. It shows a community actively invested in its future, not just a group of people doing random jobs to earn some cash or to get ahead of others. There is an active push against individualism and towards collective action that can improve lives.

That’s where the book shines: it imagines a future worth fighting for and provides an antidote to nihilism. And I think it’s more important now than it’s ever been to think up new, hopeful, somewhat possible worlds so that we have a vision to counter the growing and warranted despair of our times.

Divyansha Sehgal is a writer currently based in New Delhi. Her writing has appeared in The Sartorial Geek and Bad Form. She is also an associate editor at Kaleidocast. You can find her lurking on Twitter at @div_online.
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