SECOND OPINION: Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

Review published on June 9, 2017.

In this dystopian novel set maybe 50 years in the future and located in Canada, we are presented with the lives of a series of “walkaways”. Life and people are substantially the same as now, but society has moved on to greater extremes and disparities in both life-style and beliefs. The “zottas” or super-rich are in control of most things, no surprise there. But the world has splintered into the “default” areas – an evolution of modern urban life. There are other areas – some the old wildernesses, others defunct built up areas – that are variously occupied by the “walkaways”, who have chosen to leave the controls inherent in the “default” areas. Technology has moved on of course, for both monitoring and production procedures. Most people are heavily dependent on it, but some are also much more cognisant of the way to build, develop and subvert it.

That is the background, so what is the tale? Basically, we follow a small and changing group of walkaways to see how they live their new lives and cope in the still evolving world. People are still people of course, with loves, loyalties and dislikes. They are still physically fragile and mortal, although over the course of the novel there will be attempts to sustain people as functioning disembodied memories after their meat-bodies are dead.

With a dense 500+ pages there is a chance to explore some of these people in detail. We see their values, choices and the prices they pay for them. Behind this is a deeper exploration of moral choices. Walkaways may be leading a different lifestyle to default, but that does not mean to say that everybody still wants the same thing at the same time. How can – or should – a community make decisions? Is humanity a natural meritocracy, or should it be recognised that everybody has weaknesses and strengths? Embed that in a world of technology where it is not necessary for everybody to work “full time” (and only by choice) are “better than you” and “entitled to more” valid choices? – even assuming that they are correct now. But the substantial underlying trope is that to be different is regarded as not just a challenge but a threat to the powers-that-be and those various threats will be dealt with. Violence is still an everyday reality, someplace, somewhere. Live with it – or die.

But this is a novel too about responsibility, collective responsibility maybe if you accept that most individuals do not make a difference. It is clear that our identities exist in combination with other people. Following this family of walkaways – as the people we can build most empathy with – their belief that they are “not making a world without greed – we’re making a world where greed is a perversion” – has to be a view that you agree with, or find very tiresome. Needless to say this is a novel so the group will not face total destruction – to create a “happy ending”. Is this a weakness or strength? It depends maybe on your level of cynicism.

Overall, the placement, issues and themes gives readers a chance to explore the potential cost of our current lifestyles. Tweaking our reality of technological and social changes just a little enables us to explore the potential price of our choices into the future – maybe social breakdown and violence faced off by others’ commitments to community. Which will really win? A heavy load of ideas to explore, (especially when it includes a strong background in detailed exploration of possible technological advances) but Doctorow is an assured writer and can write to convince. He has steered clear of most “religious” issues that are impacting on so many lives around the world, so maybe we do not need to take his ideas too seriously (joke!). But otherwise he looks scarily prescient. Definitely a novel to set the brain cells buzzing.

Hilary White 4/5

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
Head of Zeus 9781786693051 hbk Apr 2017

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