Doctorow's Walkaway is a book centrally concerned with political economy. It deserves places on pretty much any reading list of economic SF, and many a list of utopian/dystopian SF, alongside classics such as Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Juliet E. McKenna offers an excellent summary in Interzone #270:
In this near-future, the rich have got much, much richer while those further down the social order desperately cling to exploitative jobs, fearful of becoming a surplus labour unit. Elites ensure this default state of affairs for the blinkered majority by controlling the only meaningful careers left: financial engineering, and politics.
When computer access is ubiquitous, survival knowledge is free for the taking. Ultimately, people can simply walk away from a society they’re no longer invested in. So Hubert, Seth and Natalie head north into the Canadian wilderness where Limpopo and like-minded folk have set up a community where everyone can have what they want or need without even having to contribute from their own means. Limpopo isn’t the leader because there’s no such role. There is no obligation to even work for the common good unless one chooses to.
Some are always determined to keep score. Some demand a pecking order. What happens when they turn up and try to remake this community to suit themselves? Walking away from conventional society means walking away from its protections, in a world where anyone can arm themselves with an AK-3DP gun. Conflict is the essence of drama, right? Not so much, as it turns out, when Limpopo and the others simply walk away again.
Walkaway philosophy says the only way to win is not to play. But what if the other side insists? Well, then it’s time to change the rules of the game, more than once if you need to, and always trying to stay one move ahead.Alberto Cottica comments on Walkaway as a book concerned with how we get from here to there:
I have noticed that most utopians (and dystopians) tend to present their future societies in fully developed form, and pay little attention to how the society we know transformed into the one they depict. This is understandable: coming up with a vision is hard enough without having to figure out the path to get there. However, it can trigger in the reader a sense of "nah, that's not going to happen". This is true especially for positive utopias: probably if we lived in one we would not be incentivized to break it, but we cannot see how to get from here to there. The utopia is a Nash equilibrium, but so is the world we live in. The utopia is a superior equilibrium, but we are stuck in this one.
Walkaway is an exception. A near future SF novel, it starts in a society we can completely recognize, give or take the robustness and commodification of some existing technologies (renewable energy production, self driving vehicles, 3D printing). We see the walkaway economy emerging in the course of the novel.Doctorow seems to agree: "Fully automated leisure communism isn’t binary: there are intermediate stages of automated comfort we can seize" ('Coase's Spectre').
Redfern Jon Barrett, in a review for Strange Horizons, comments on the novel's geographic imaginary:
Whilst many have dreamed of idealised rural communities, it the metropolis which comes closest to realising humanity’s potential. What good is utopia if it doesn’t include apartment dwellers?
It’s here that Doctorow dodges the pitfalls of the genre; rather than leaving us urbanites to rot, walkaways colonise cities abandoned by capital—the numerous Detroits of the mid-21st century—and in doing so reclaim the metropolis itself. Akron, Liverpool, Ivrea, Minsk, Lodz, Cape Town, and Monrovia are all claimed by the post-scarcity movement of the walkaways. One walkaway encapsulates this urban-grasping mood with the rather succinct: “Not Walkaway: walk towards. Fuck, run towards.” The ultimate goal isn’t to establish an entirely separate world which leaves the majority, nor to simply rely on the problematic idea of unclaimed wilderness. We all have the possibility of becoming walkaways, and as a result we’re presented with something bolder and more ambitious than most utopian fiction preceding it.Walkaway is also, for my money (slash leaderboard points slash freely-given-being) just one of Doctorow's better books. Maybe it could have done with more jokes (there are jokes, but they make me want more). But it has plenty of wit and brio, some reasonably rounded characters as well as some feasibly flat ones, and in this case the distinctive chewy Doctorow diction (scrunching my bumbler pee in my crosshatched nap doughnut thump buzzy water-cannoneer vulns, I ricocheted zotta bullcrap with a fuck-ton of scalp-dissolving dramasauce) knits together admirably into a big, welcoming, warty beanbag of a world which I was more than happy to wallow in. The narrative has a slowness that tended to generate not drag or repulsive force but immersion and a sense of the epic. It's not an epic quality that, say, eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope would recognise: Pope thought that the epic mode was about not mentioning when somebody farts.
Walkaway is also interested in mind uploading. Very interested. It opens up a trope that is often tediously neat and slick, and makes an interesting mess of the practicalities. Arguably the interest in mind uploading and the interest in political economy tug the book in two opposite directions.
The novel's acknowledgements mention three big non-fiction influences: Graeber's Debt, Piketty's Capital, and Solnit's Paradise. In particular, you can see in there Piketty's patient account of what is misnomered "meritocracy," as well as Graeber's notion of baseline or everyday communism. (And more general exploration of gift economies. See also the Crooked Timber seminar on Debt).
But perhaps it's really Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster which most deeply informs Walkaway's overall premise and cautiously optimistic vision. Solnit points to the wealth of sociological research demonstrating that "[t]he image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it." Solnit explores the "strange pleasure in disaster," almost a sense of enjoyment, "if enjoyment is the right word for that sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused by the rupture in everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive." (See also Martha Wolfenstein's Disaster: A Psychological Essay (1957) and Albert Camus's The Plague (1947)).
Walkaway is a deliberately discuss-able book, which politely but firmly ignores the cliche that readers can't deal with info-dumps (as if we don't read non-fiction?) or long philosophical and/or introspective debates (as if we don't read Plato or Thomas Love Peacock or Umberto Eco or Neal Stephenson or Iain M. Banks or Iris Murdoch, or wish presidential debates were like the one on The West Wing, or actually have long philosophical and/or introspective debates ourselves).
Walkaway engages in the politics of re-description. Compared with some of Doctorow's earlier work, there is a welcome clarity to its anti-capitalist stance. But the book doesn't talk about "capitalism": it re-names it "default." (Could it have gone with "Omelas"?) It hardly talks about "capitalists" or "the rich" or "the upper classes": it re-names these people "zottas" (from zotta-rich, an order of magnitude above your run-of-the-billionaire uber-rich or mega-rich).
Here's a small provocation. Although Walkaway is solidly Prometheanist and techno-progressive -- in other words, a text with plenty in it to swell the always-already cyborg hearts of left transhumanists, left accelerationists, and technofeminists, a text in which tech will save us if it can be decoupled from techno-capitalism -- there is an intriguing strand of primitivism in there. This is easy to miss, because it is mainly articulated stylistically, through lacunae and modulations of pace and attentiveness. What do walkaways do for pleasure? They work, they talk, they have sex, they cook and eat delicious things, and they bathe. It's also lowkey drugs positive. OK, as a matter of worldbuilding, they clearly do other stuff -- they play games, they watch TV, etc. -- but the novel does not fix these activities with the same relentless, loving gaze. This is a book which is constantly reminding you of all the ways to experience pleasure with relatively limited resources. (The one book (I think) that is mentioned is, slightly intriguingly, Terry Pratchett's The Truth (as an audiobook)).
Doctorow is a bit distinctive among speculative fiction writers in having a tolerably nuanced view of scarcity: instead of conflating scarcity with finitude (therefore turning "post-scarcity" into nonsense), he understands scarcity as a function of resources, desires, and the intricate relationship between the two (i.e. the use and distribution of resources, and the use and distribution of desires, which are themselves resources of a kind).
The walkaways aren't just post-scarcity because they know how to have whatever they want; they're post-scarcity because they know how to want whatever they have.
The longish sex scenes aren't fan service, or a break from the book's arguments about scarcity and utopia: they're part of the book's argument about scarcity and utopia. To some extent, the long convos are also a function of an extrapolated post-capitalist society: walkaways feel time a little differently than we do, and they relish debate among friends in a way that we don't quite: walkaways talkaway, they edgelol, they engage in tantric intellectualising (cf. JM Keynes on the "real" and "permanent problem" of how "to live wisely and agreeably and well,' and cf. action in Arendt's sense).
So the arguments about scarcity are in some ways fairly subtle. They can't be easily extracted from the narrative: they disintegrate if you try to dust off the aesthetic features. Of course, there are plenty of arguments in the book which are carefully unsubtle, leaving as little room for misunderstanding as possible. The treatment of reputation economies is a key example. Walkaway is not only a prequel to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom but also, I think, a sort of retraction, or at least a gloss of some gusto. Although Down and Out is certainly a nasty utopia, which takes care to elaborate the shortcomings of its reputation-based economy, I see it as operating in the same mode as Le Guin's Anarres in The Dispossessed. It says, "My job isn't to suggest what we should or shouldn't try as a society, but if it were, maybe we could try this? And here are some of the problems I can imagine." By contrast Walkaway presents the reputation-based economy in a different way: "Don't try this." See Doctorow, "Wealth Inequality Is Even Worse In Reputation Economies." (Cf. Robinson's Aurora: "Geeze I didn't actually mean go to Mars.")
Alberto Cottica suggests that, in Walkaway, "The engine of progress is competition between different protocols for cooperating." Doctorow calls Walkaway a novel about "solving Ronald Coase’s coordination puzzle using networked tools" (with provisos). He adds:
I am a Coasean in that I think that all our institutions exist to help us figure out how to accomplish super-human (that is, “beyond one human’s ability”) tasks. [...] Command-and-control coordination, whether by your boss or the state, sucks, and the best thing you can say about it is it beats the alternative of scratching in the dirt, wishing you were John Galt and could raise a mighty skyscraper by sheer will as you starve to death on a diet of tubers and regrets. [...]
Networked tools—wikis, source/version control, crawlers, searchbots, collaborative filters (and more advanced machine-learning cousins), containers, VMs, and others—provide a cauldron for all the stone soup the networked world cares to cook. Any of us can throw our contribution into the pot, and possibly improve the soup, and if the soup is not improved, we can always ctrl-Z revert it back to an earlier state. If we disagree about what belongs in the soup, we can fork the soup (or, I suppose, spoon it) and you can have your soup and I can have my soup and we don’t have to agree what goes in the soup.
[...] The Coasean Internet is how we make OSes and encyclopedias with the kind of hierarchy we once deployed to oversee bake-sales or small town councils. [...] This is genuinely futuristic. The snarling, often dysfunctional world of Wikipedia edit wars and holy wars over free software vs open source are a much smaller hierarchical/institutional price to pay for getting projects on the scale of OSes and encylopediae than the institutions they are displacing. [...]
Market economies are superbly efficient at reducing labor, energy and material costs in production (not out of an intrinsic desire to save any of these, but because the savings represent a competitive pricing opportunity and/or higher profits). But markets are great externalizers [...] [N]on-market economies -- reputation economies, gift economies —-can be designed to privilege genuine efficiencies over externalizing. That’s part of the appeal of Walkaway -- and of commons-based peer production.
Bucket brigades only ask you to work as hard as you want—rush forward to get a new load and back to pass it off, or amble between them, or vary your speed. It didn’t matter—if you went faster, it meant the people on either side of you didn’t have to walk as far, but it didn’t require them to go faster or slower. If you slowed, everyone else stayed at the same speed. Bucket brigades were a system through which everyone could do whatever they wanted—within the system—however fast you wanted to go; everything you did helped and none of it slowed down anyone else.Capitalist default, by contrast, must be something like the bucket singularity of Goethe's 'Sorcerer's Apprentice.'
Walkaway is a deliberately discuss-able book, and it is being discussed.
- Vector #288, on Future Economics, contains Kirsten Bussière's essay 'Digital Humanity: Collaborative Capital Resistance in Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway.' Now also online.
- The book was the subject of a Crooked Timber seminar.
- The economist Alberto Cottica has written extensively and illuminatingly about the economic themes of Walkaway.
- Review by Redfern Jon Barrett at Strange Horizons.
- Jon Buford's review asks if Walkaway is today's Atlas Shrugged.
- Walkaway at the ISFDB.