Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017) is a perfect fictional complement to his incisive blog Pluralistic, which I have been inhaling recently with a mixture of rage and awe: rage for the incredibly corrupt infrastructure of capitalism Doctorow scathingly describes, awe for his intelligent and absurdly prolific commentary about it. Walkaway’s core mission is to imagine a transition into post-capitalism, and as usual with Doctorow, the execution is swarming with ideas, and it’s kind of magnificent.
Walkaway begins in Toronto, with late-stage capitalism in its death throes. Our initial heroes are Hubert, Natalie, and Seth, who meet in an abandoned factory where Natalie—the rebellious daughter of a rapacious billionaire—is throwing a “communist party.” The trio are part of a growing segment of the population for whom the “default” reality of capitalism is a toxic system which not only can no longer employ them, but technically shouldn’t even be necessary. Indeed, the scientific and technological tools are rapidly becoming available to support everyone in equal abundance. Nonetheless, predatory capitalism persists, primarily to prop up the out-of-balance financial hegemony privileging a select few over the vast majority. Events at the party transpire to propel the trio—soon to be known as Etcetera, Iceweasel, and, well, Seth—into “walkaway” culture. It’s something of an interstitial society full of displaced people for whom “default” has no use, who are attempting to build new ways of communal living outside the daily rat race of employment and debt slavery. Their experimental efforts meet with all manner of obstacles, some borne of internal disagreements, but most driven by default’s stubborn insistence on enforcing the obsolete norms that keep the system unfair.
Organized into several robust sections spanning decades, Walkaway is an idea-rich, multi-protagonist thought experiment that manages an impressive feat: depicting a revolution from its early days to its final triumph. (In this respect, in terms of ambitious scope, it rivals Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.) It’s full of bracing speculation on science, technology, economics, politics, and social dynamics, all in service to imagining a different way of living—and as such, serves as a skewering critique of our current broken systems. Walkaway’s eccentric outcasts are winning, and their heated interactions provide great philosophical debate along with amusing entertainment. Like other idea-forward science fiction authors (Neal Stephenson and Charles Stross come to mind), Doctorow occasionally writes with a know-it-all confidence that can be off-putting. But…well, he sure does know an awful lot, and here approaches his target with stunning comprehensiveness. The results are written with a mix of realism and optimistic verve, with an inclusive message and a refreshingly positive spin. It’s an accomplished piece of work—almost imposingly so!