For our most recent reading group event, we read Walkaway (2017) by Cory Doctorow. A group of about ten met to discuss the novel in a seminar room at Birkbeck, 43-46 Gordon Square, on the 12th of August.
The novel follows a number of characters in a near future Canada, ravaged by eco-catastrophe capitalism, who choose to ‘walkaway’ from society, and form their own, more equal techno-utopia in the empty wastelands outside of the cities.
There was much to discuss, and I will try to summarise as best I can where our conversations led us:
The novel appears, at the beginning, to follow one character, Hubert, Etc. However, we quite quickly leave Hubert, Etc., and follow a host of different characters. The structure, therefore, at first mimics the standard bourgeois novel, in which an individual comes to a realisation or epiphany in the process of the narrative. The non-standard structure that follows dissolves the individual into a multitude of voices; just as the novel attempts to move away from an individualist idea of society, to a collective one.
It was felt that the ending of the novel was unsatisfactory. The characters have reached immortality in the future and all loose ends are neatly tied up. Instead of the contingent live process of utopian praxis that the novel follows in the most part, here, at the end, we encounter a static and resolved utopia. The novel falls into some of the same problems as The Parable of the Talents (1998) by Octavia E. Butler, which similarly accelerates the events of the narrative in order to give the reader a tidy ending.
It was noted that the novel has two overarching plots; one in which characters escape from capitalist relations and another where immortality is in the process of being discovered. Both are well explored, especially the concept of immortality. However, it was suggested that they did not fit together so well in the narrative. This may be because Walkaway is a prequel to Doctorow’s first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), in which immortal characters attempt to control the running of Disney Land using ‘Wuffy’, a currency based on reputation. In a sense Walkaway is a critique of the concepts he explored in his first novel, especially ‘Wuffy.’ The attempt to weave these elements into the narrative is sometimes a little forced.
The style of the novel was criticised. Some of the language was described as ‘cheesy,’ especially the neologisms that pepper the book. There was also a lack of interiority for the characters that we follow in the book.
However, it was pointed out that Doctorow described the book as conceived of as popular ‘pulp’ writing in an interview, attempting to gain a wide audience through an emphasis on more exciting and engaging stylistic elements such as action and dialogue. Doctorow has termed this approach of spreading progressive ideology via fiction ‘weaponised narrative’ in a blog post on wired.com. Further, the lack of interiority makes sense in terms of the narrative progression towards the collective.
There are many people of different backgrounds represented in the novel, including a trans character, gay/bi-sexual characters, and indigenous characters. However, there was a consensus that though this was a laudatory aim, it felt a little like box ticking. None of the queer or de-colonial elements actively structured the way in which the world was created. They did not transform the Utopia, the way it was built and run, but were merely included.
One particular example of this might be dis/ability. Not everyone would be able to ‘walkaway’ from the particular confrontations of the novel due to illness or disability, neither are these concerns actively explored in the design of the community or spaces that are created.
Another area which the group found underdeveloped was the question of land, and land rights. Though there are indigenous characters, there was little acknowledgement of who has a claim to the land which the ‘walkaways’ co-opt for their communities. In the novel, there appears to be private property in the cities, and free waste lands outside of them. However, especially in Canada, the land is not empty, and there is a long history of the colonial concept of ’empty’ space in North America.
Some felt that the dichotomy between the cities and the wasteland was reminiscent of classic dystopias such as We (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell, in that it valorised empty land over the urban. In a sense Walkaway is the novel of those utopian spaces outside of the classic dystopian narratives, to which they only make vague hints.
The group was positive about the attempt to write a utopian novel, especially in the face of a dearth of such attempts in recent years. Many of the aspects, especially those of 3D printing (including wet printing medicine), recycling, and knowledge distribution, were well explored. One group member termed it the utopianism of the ‘Scrap Iron Age’, in which materials of collapse are repurposed for the construction of a egalitarian society.
Though the utopianism was seen as a positive, it was pointed out that there was a lack of imagination on the part of the characters when it came to imagining that better world. For instance, in terms of architecture, it appeared that the characters were happy to build the same building, or type of building time after time (here we were referring to the Belt and Braces which is rebuilt in a similar manner after the original is commandeered). Someone aptly pointed out that this might be a reflection of a kind of Marcusian concept of a post-scarcity society still tied to a capitalist ideology/imaginary, thinking more precisely of Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (1964). The characters can’t escape from capitalism in a psychological sense, though they have liberated themselves from capitalist society.
There was much discussion of the term ‘walkaway.’ It was hinted that the term is probably influenced by Ursula Le Guin’s short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ (1973) as well as Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1975). It was also noted that the term bore a resemblance to the Australian Aborigine rite of passage, the ‘Walkabout.’ Walking away was linked to resistance, freedom, and refusal of the ‘Default’ (the term for the mainstream society of the cities). It was pointed out that not everyone is in a position to be able to walk away. Those who are indebted, are carers, have families, or are disabled, might find this resistance an impossibility.
In a more concrete sense, walking away is an escape from property, institutions, and digital surveillance. ‘Default’ is lightly sketched so it is difficult to get a concrete idea of the society from which the characters are walking away. At some points default is pictured as a post-scarcity world of boredom and at others it is a surveillance dystopia.
The book is generally positive about the role of science and technology for the future. Though there is certainly a misuse of technology, especially by those who control ‘Default,’ it is successfully used/re-appropriated /produced by the walkaway communities. Though many were sceptical of the techno-utopianism of the narrative, the book was praised for envisioning a society of autonomous science and creative commons, outside of and not beholden to capitalism.