Canadian-born, Los Angeles-based journalist and activist Cory Doctorow’s latest novel for adult audiences, Walkaway, sees cyber "maker" culture meet post-scarcity in the Canadian wilderness in a story that is either a dystopian or utopian look to the future, depending on your feelings on meritocracy.
The novel unfolds over some 50 years in the lives of our protagonists, a group of young adults who meet in near-future Toronto, complete with believably futuristic details. We’ve got the fun predictions (self-cooking pizzas, robot waitresses, illegally hacked self-driving cars) as well as the dire (profound income inequality, mass unemployment, universal surveillance).
Unemployed nobodies Hubert and Seth meet ultra-rich "zotta" Natalie at an illegal furniture-manufacturing rave in a derelict factory ("putting the ‘party’ back in ‘Communist Party’"). After the party is busted, the trio spends the next day hiding, recovering and arguing about philosophy in Natalie’s parents’ mansion before deciding to "go walkaway" — that is, walk out of the city (and law-and-order civilization) into the no man’s land that is the Niagara Escarpment.
Walkaway territory is an anarchic hinterland; it exists in ex-urban areas around the globe. With the futuristic equivalent of today’s 3D printers — as well as renewable energy and raw materials sourced from amply available scrap — anyone can print nearly anything needed, so walkaways do a type of digital homesteading in the wastelands by manufacturing their own food, medicine, shelter and technology.
Walkaway residents form communities based on common needs or belief systems, with several larger communities — Akron, Lagos, Krakow — referenced or roughly sketched. Differences in belief systems form the core of the novel, and our protagonists face threats from rival walkaway communities, from the "default" society that fears them and from Natalie’s zillionaire father, who seeks to return her to the sheltered life befitting an heiress.
Doctorow does a cogent job of introducing the reader to walkaway society through his characters; just as the reader wonders how something works, someone in the book encounters that very issue. The book’s perspective moves seamlessly between several men and women of varying age and experience, and the characters Doctorow draws are fully three-dimensional — except the villains of default society, who often come across as cardboard cut-outs of greed.
While the world Doctorow draws is convincingly realistic, some of the conversations of the cast that populates it are not: Walkaway is long on ideology, with characters having sometimes laughably protracted discussions of economic theory. As in some of his previous novels, the philosophizing is heavy-handed at times, almost evangelical.
"Private property is the most productive property. Temporary inefficiencies don’t change that," argues Natalie’s father, the book’s main antagonist, early in the book. "Only kleptocrats use terms like ‘temporary inefficiencies’ for wasteful abominations," retorts Natalie. Much of the book’s dialogue is similarly steeped in policy-speak.
If your novel’s going to spend a lot of time sermonizing on economic theory, you’d best add some spicy bits to keep the reader attentive, and Doctorow accommodates. The book includes several battle scenes with mecha robots and exploding zeppelins, easily imagined on the silver screen.
Doctorow also liberally infuses the book with sex. In this venue, it offers a delightful fluidity of sexuality and gender that feels believably near-future: characters feel desire for and move between relationships with members of the same or opposite sex without comment; one character’s transgender status is only remarked upon in passing.
A leap even further into the future at the end of the book feels a bit forced — like a sequel that didn’t quite materialize — but overall Doctorow has drawn a satisfyingly credible and compelling world that could exist if the modern world continues on its trajectory, with ample thought given to how the choices we make in dealing with individuals shapes the foundation of the society in which we live.
Wendy Sawatzky is associate editor digital news for the Winnipeg Free Press and commander in chief at wendysawatzky.com.