Cory Doctorow, Walkaway, Tor Books, 2017, $26.99
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There’s an inscription on a wall in Scotland’s parliament: Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.
In his new novel Walkaway, the Canadian-British writer and activist Cory Doctorow imagines what it would mean to do exactly that in a world ravaged by capitalist inequality and climate change. Set in Toronto about a century in the future, this intricately crafted thriller uses deft linguistic innovation (more on that in a moment) and political extrapolation to envision the tension and conflict of an all-too-familiar dystopia existing side by side with a counter-utopia of freedom and possibility. What would the last capitalists do to survive when faced with a real alternative? Doctorow isn’t naïve about this question, and his utopia isn’t perfect: it is built, as one character notes, not in virgin forests but on a “fifth-growth ex-tree-farm” with “heavy-metal contamination and a subsiding gravel pit.” But it offers a real sense of where we might go from here — and does so with style and humor.
We enter Doctorow’s future through dystopia. This global capitalist society, controlled by a ruling class known as the zottarich (or simply zottas) is a grim portrait of neoliberalism taken to its logical conclusions. While the zottas enjoy wild, inventive techno-luxuries, working people do their best to survive on perpetual part-time hours at multiple jobs with short contracts and unpaid training while they try to afford to send their kids to a completely privatized, for-profit education system.
Hubert, Etc (so called to save reciting all twenty-one of his names, bestowed by his parents in the hope of confounding databases) and Seth, our protagonists, are struggling like everyone else. When we meet them, neither has “had anything like real work in months,” since the last tech bubble — a retro craze for zeppelin travel — burst. The two men, both in their late twenties, attend a “Communist party,” an underground-speakeasy affair thrown by dissidents and protesters, based on gift economies and powered by an artificially intelligent DJ and an assortment of creative new drugs. There they meet Natalie Redwater, the slumming daughter of a zotta family, but the fun is cut short when until a flock of police drones shows up, breaking up the party and killing Natalie’s friend Billiam.
The interface surfaces everyone wears (usually in jewelry, but sometimes embedded in the skin) to communicate, make cashless payments, and generally perform the functions of a smartphone, also track each person’s every action as they go about their day. This allows the state to track down Communist parties and other underground gatherings, as well as compiling the data of every person’s life, from locations to biometrics to social graphs to monetary transactions. Make a wrong move and it can be used to send you into the enormous and highly profitable prison system, source of much of the Redwater family’s wealth.
In the ensuing chaos, the three friends find their way back to Natalie’s family compound, which is luxurious but subject to all-encompassing surveillance by Natalie’s father Jacob Redwater, a capitalist who genuinely believes that his society is a meritocracy and that his position at the top results from his innate superiority. All Natalie has to do is ask, and her father’s lawyers will wipe away the friends’ problems — for someone so powerful, it’s as easy as swatting a fly — but she and her new friends have their eye on an alternative solution: walkaway.
All most Canadians know about walkaway is that it’s terrible. If you’re really desperate, you can strip off your interface surfaces, leave your life behind, and head out into “the territories,” the wilderness — and there is plenty of wilderness, thanks to the ravages of climate change and other forms of environmental devastation. Vast swaths of North America are virtually abandoned, wandered only by “walkaways” who couldn’t hack it in the real world. But the territories are cruel, everyone knows that; as Seth puts it, “Those people are bananas. They’re homeless people. . . . They’re bums. They eat garbage. . . . You’d be dead inside of a month.”
Hubert, Etc isn’t so sure: “It’s not the surface of the moon. It’s places where no one wants to bother arresting the population for vagrancy.”
“Yeah, they don’t arrest ‘em, they incinerate ‘em for being squatter-terrorists,” Seth replies. “And then there’s the friendly fire. It’s a fucking gladiator pit for excess humans. . . . You’ve got to be insane if you think we’re going to stroll into Mordor with packs full of delicious M.R.E.s and be welcomed as spiritual brothers.”
Finding real information about walkaway life is not easy. Information control is no joke in this near-future Canada, and it’s hard to know which anonymizers work and which are “false-flag ops for harvesting intel on dissidents” — but they research carefully and finally turn up some insight about walkaway life:
Thoreauvian memoirs about societal malaise and the tradecraft of going off-grid in the age of total information awareness. . . . appendices summing things up for the tldr crowd, with videos, darknet links, shapefiles, and wetjet formulas for making your own crucial frontier enzymes and GMS. Some of this was radioactively hot, the kind of thing that’d get you watchlisted so hard you’d have to fight through the clouds of drones to go out for milk, but there was nothing in it about weapons.
Ultimately they decide: “Fuck yeah. Let’s do it.”
Our heroes walk off the grid laden with gear, expecting a Mad Max world. Instead they find the Belt and Braces, a tavern/inn/Japanese-style onsen collectively run by a diverse crew of walkaways, and are warmly welcomed by a veteran walkway who calls herself Limpopo. Life off the grid, it turns out, is anything but abandoned.
Here we turn to the utopian side of Doctorow’s world: a democratic, hand-built, open-source-coded, low-environmental-impact commune that welcomes all, expects (but doesn’t demand) hard work, practices consent and collective care, and makes amazing shit happen — a vision any socialist, anarchist, or burner can get behind.
Tech plays a large role in the commune’s success: the B&B is powered by major advances in 3D printing, automation, and other technology. Food can be extruded, smart clothing and equipment printed, with feedstock easily available from the destruction left behind by the past century of capitalism: abandoned communities and industrial sites scattered across the countryside. Codebases, instructions, and data are easy enough to find on the free internet — the one not controlled by “default,” the walkaways’ name for on-the-grid capitalist society — and much of the R&D is done by the UN High Commission on Refugees, a huge organization now that war and climate change have displaced hundreds of millions around the world. Indeed, much of walkaway’s innovations, from rammed-earth housing construction to the cultured-fungus rations known as scop, are invented by refugees themselves, then improved in each iteration by everyone who tries them. The inhabitants of the B&B hold the refu labs and walkaway universities of Syria and the Punjab in high regard. There are walkaways all over the world, from Poland to Somalia, all doing their best to conduct collaborative research without getting bombed out of existence by the remaining states.
Walkaway life is so named not only because it’s made up of people who walked away from capitalism. It also describes a radical nonattachment to places and things: Your experiment didn’t work? Drones from the default military blew up your home? Armed libertarians took over your commune? Oh well — walk away and build something new somewhere else.
The need to constantly rebuild and reimagine means that walkaway ethics hold work in high regard; pitching in and doing your share is how to earn respect. Everyone also works to shake off the mental conditioning of the neoliberal nightmare and figure out what really works: living, as the walkaways like to say, as though they’re in the first days of a better nation. Debate rages, in person and online, among the group, which is proudly diverse in gender, age, ethnicity, and default-class background. They work hard, scavenge widely, and try to take good care of one another physically and mentally, greeting each other with a good-natured “Piss clear.” Many walkaways even take new names, part of rebuilding their identities: Natalie becomes Iceweasel and Hubert Etc becomes Etcetera. (Seth sticks with Seth.)
There’s plenty of variation outside the borders of default society. There’s some Mad Max behavior, a band of dysfunctional libertarians, and some cults, yes, but plenty of radical experiments, too. “Spacies,” for instance, work toward the goal of colonizing space; another crew commits ideologically “to doing nothing, creating a ‘safe space’ for ‘post-work.’” And the useful convenience technologies of default — self-pasting toothbrushes, hydrophilic towels, and sophisticated wearables — find plenty of use in walkaway. Other groups are less ambitious; hidden communities of senior citizens, their safety nets gone, try to live out their days without rocking the boat, secretly visiting their grandchildren in state parks.
The tension between walkaway and default is premised on a long history of movements and protests (called gezis in honor of today’s Turkish occupiers), both on the default left and among Native people. First Nations bands work closely with and sometimes join the B&B crew, especially Mohawk people from the nearby community of Dead Lake. Doctorow treats Idle No More and Standing Rock as the first wave of a century-long rebellion across North America:
The old First Nations protest movement gained momentum over a period of years, banking down to embers for months at a time, then exploding in fiery gouts of smart, savvy events that were so well-turned that even the totally pwned default media couldn’t ignore ‘em. Idle became an international shorthand for effective revolt and street protestors from Warsaw to Port au Prince to Caracas declared solidarity with it and used its iconography.
Until, in a series of coordinated swoops, the RCMP, Canadian army, FBI, and CSIS simply scraped Idle off the planet. . .
In walkaway circles, Idle were still heroes. . . . In the rest of the world, Idle had come to stand for the danger of discontent, an object lesson in how people who fought back couldn’t offer any alternative.
Sound familiar? The old TINA narrative — There Is No Alternative — from Margaret Thatcher’s day has risen again, alive and well in the future, painstakingly maintained by a state that can’t afford for its citizens to know that their former neighbors are busy working on just such an alternative fifty miles away on an old Superfund site. When TINA doesn’t work, the state deploys a privatized military with bulldozers, drones, bombs, pain rays, and experimental weaponry, as it does today in Palestine or at Standing Rock. Those who can escape scatter to begin again somewhere else. Higher-priority targets, however, are simply erased from the surface of the earth.
The higher-priority targets include research facilities like Walkaway University that provide a home for academics and researchers alienated by default society — which is plenty of them, since the only research that gets funding in default is the kind that works to bring to life the dreams of billionaires. Some campuses are destroyed by “open military strikes, undertaken under rubrics ranging from harboring fugitives — a favorite when default clobbers walkaway — to standbys like terrorism and intellectual property violations.”
When the Niagara campus of Walkaway University is bombed to ashes, a large group of researchers repair to a secret underground facility where they’ve been storing equipment for this eventuality. Iceweasel brings aid from the nearby B&B, and learns just why Walkaway University is such a threat to the state. Sita, Gretyl, and other researchers have been working on a project with the potential to change life as we know it: they’ve figured out how to download a person’s consciousness and run it as an artificially intelligent simulation. They do so with a member of the team who died in the bombing, and her resurrected, AI-enhanced mind becomes an important part of the team. There’s plenty of technical explanation, opsec, and AI theory here for the hard-sci-fi fans, more than this review can cover, but Doctorow writes it skillfully enough to avoid alienating less scientifically inclined readers.
These projects — undertaken with the goal of immortality — are funded by billionaires, but the researchers who work on them tend to walk away from their labs. As one notes,
It’s one thing to imagine a life of working to enrich some hereditary global power broker when you know you got eight years on the planet, and so does he. . . . But the thought of making those greedy assholes into godlike immortals, bifurcating the human race into infinite Olympian masters and mayflies. . . It’s a race: either the walkaways release immortality to the world, or the zottas install themselves as permanent god-emperors.
Such, then, are the stakes: the possibility of eternal life stands to end centuries of tension and bring the question of “socialism or barbarism,” to use Rosa Luxemburg’s old formation, to a head: socialism forever, or barbarism forever? The conflict between walkaway and default leads to an epic confrontation where revolutionary inmates liberate their prisons, doxxing is turned against the mercenaries, and radicals’ kids take to the zeppelins, a great many human beings applying their talents to creating a better world even as they’re engaging in brutal struggle, and a glimpse of something like utopia.
Speaking a new world into being
Science fiction is, of course, full of dystopias and utopias of varying degrees of plausibility, each vision the outgrowth of its own politics, but what marks Doctorow’s work as particularly distinctive — what he does more deftly and thoughtfully than almost any other futurist — is his use of language evolution.
How do we know when we’re reading about the future? The usual signals include technology (or a lack thereof), strange new social and governmental structures, spaceships, the signs of advanced climate change. Yet after many science-fiction writers devote themselves to building a world, they fill it with characters who speak exactly like North Americans from 2018. (I’m looking at you, Star Trek!) For Doctorow, though, linguistic change is a core component of world-building. Changes in everyday technologies, literature and pop culture, historic events, religion, cultural exchange, and the interplay between written and spoken forms of language all change the way we communicate. New things and new concepts demand new words. Idioms seep in from literature or form organically from the way we interact with our world. Circumstances that arise from social and material conditions get their own names and concepts too: “Facebook friend,” for example, is a specific social relationship mediated by technology that has brought with it new forms of etiquette and communication that have required new terms (friend and unfriend as verbs, for instance).
A language can change quite a lot in a century. Those of us who spent the 2017 centenary of the Russian Revolution immersed in its texts can verify that, while we’d certainly be able to converse with a time traveler from 1917, our part of the conversation would include plenty of terms and forms unfamiliar to them (how to explain what it means for a president to tweet?) — and we’d find ourselves baffled by a horse-related analogy at least once or twice.
Doctorow clearly took a great deal of care in thinking through the linguistic implications of the material conditions he builds in Walkaway — conditions that arise very plausibly from our current world. The result is a rich, playful, and dynamic bibliolect that brings its characters and their world to life.
At first, we get small shocks of recognition as we see predictable changes, like nicknames becoming formalized: a character introduced very early in the book is named Billiam. Also in the first few pages, we learn about zottas and mercs (mercenaries) and gezi (a term for occupation-based protests, but also a refugee-invented enzyme used in brewing to reduce hangovers). There are fun onomatopoeic words, too: a character flumfs down onto a couch. Technology, of course, is everywhere: today’s internet slang is tomorrow’s universally accepted word, and it’s common to speak of noobs using opsec to avoid getting pwned or doxxed or even tazed. Faq (pronounced “fack”) and tldr (“tilder”) likewise slide from initialism to word. A particularly fun example is fubar, which originated as a World War II military slang for “fucked up beyond all repair” — already a word on its own, here it provides the root for constructions like defubar and enfubarage. There’s new tech, too, of course: aerostats and mechas. Another tributary flowing into the lexicon is food: coffee, now a rare and precious commodity in North America, has been replaced by the inferior coffium; fermentation starters developed by refugees become known as refu-scop.
The circumstances of walkaway (the term itself a product of material circumstances) produce colorful new descriptions like shleppers (noobs who walk away from default with a ton of stuff tied to their backs, unaware of the giving economy). So does the technology of the AI sims, with functional shifts in already existing terms like deadheading (getting frozen to be reawakened later) and uploading (uploading one’s consciousness into a sim). Changes already under way in our day have solidified — nobody in this world blinks at using a nonbinary gender identification or pronoun. And the rhythms of speech are ever so slightly altered — clipped, casualized.
All of these linguistic innovations mirror the real processes that have changed English during our lifetimes and will keep it changing long after our deaths. It’s a subtle, deftly realized way to immerse readers in Doctorow’s future — not unlike the hot and cold pools of the B&B’s onsen, where walkaways allow the rigidity of life under capitalism to melt away from their bodies.
In a historical period that feels particularly grim, dystopias are easy: as Bad Religion famously asked, “How could hell be any worse?” To envision real living and human cooperation plausibly in our crisis-wracked, climate-fucked world is a much more difficult task. To do so without being at least a little bit corny is probably impossible — Doctorow playfully, self-deprecatingly acknowledges this and suggests that perhaps a little corny idealism is not the worst thing that could befall the left as we attempt to build a livable future for humanity. What this book argues is that, with human ingenuity, the free exchange of information, and plenty of compassion, we just might be able to — perhaps even literally — build a new world from the ashes of the old.
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 Harry McGrath, “Early Days of a Better Nation,” Scottish Review of Books, March 28, 2013.
 The recently published game Dialect, from Thorny Games, explores how this process works in illuminating detail. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thornygames/dialect-a-game-about-language-and-how-it-dies
This review appears in Red Wedge #5: “Bad Dreams.” Order a copy here.
Sarah Grey is a freelance writer and editor based in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Jacobin, Bitch, Saveur, Salvage, International Socialist Review, and more. She indexes and edits academic, activist, and creative nonfiction (with a specialty in Marxism). She can be reached on Twitter at @greyediting or through her website.