Sci-Fi for the Ungovernable
True to the growing needs of today, Walkaway reveals utopia amid intensity, complexity, and cascading disasters. Ryan Richardson walks with us through Cory Doctorow’s dystopian narrative.
The Trump era has sent dystopian literature to the top of the charts and left readers anxiously pondering just how bad things might get. But why let our attention be drawn only by the darkest possible outcomes? In these troubling times, we ought to temper frightening speculation with images of the future we desire.
Cue Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, a timely utopian novel whose protagonists are out to radically remake the world. Its sci-fi future is glitteringly weird and pretty queer too, reading like a mashup of subcultures: squatter, raver, burner, hacker, maker. Above all it’s a book of ideas, covering themes such as capitalism and inequality, ownership and use, surveillance and privacy, technology and work, abundance and scarcity. With its vision of a decentralized, tech-enabled revolt overtaking capitalism and the state, Walkaway traces a path towards a future worth fighting for.
Walkaway is billed as a “disaster utopia,” drawing on Rebecca Solnit’s remarkable A Paradise Built in Hell. Like its inspiration, Doctorow’s book is a parable of human decency amid desperate circumstances. It’s utopian not because it offers the blueprint of a perfect society, but because it shows ordinary people, motivated by belief in better days ahead, striving to live them out in the present. Utopia is in the long game.
Rather than a single shattering event, the disaster half of “disaster utopia” is synonymous with civilization itself. Generalized collapse looms in the novel’s background. The climate wreaks havoc. Species disappear day by day. Deadly pandemics spread. Coastlines are underwater. The UN handles a billion “refus” worldwide. Periodic “gezis” (as ubiquitous protest movements are known) erupt across the globe, feeding a weary cycle of popular uprising and government crackdown.
“Default” society – Doctorow’s nerdy, useful shorthand for the status quo – senselessly drags on. But as one defector puts it: “This all can’t last. Even if it can, it shouldn’t.”
At the center of the story are the eponymous walkaways – those who pass “out of the world as it was and into the world as it could be.” Walkaways, at first glance, are like an updated version of ‘60s dropouts turning their backs on official America. Each has a personal story of disenchantment and rebellion. They up and leave families, schools, and jobs, choosing an uncertain fate over Default’s false promises of security and success.