Friday, 30 June 2017


I've been reading Walkaway for a few weeks now. I originally picked it up at the Hay Book Festival, when I was browsing the book tent on Utopia day. I like Cory Doctorow's writings in Boing Boing and had previously read a gift copy of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

Doctorow deals in ideas and themes and indeed there are some continuities between the two novels. In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom there are themes around increasing virtualisation, a set of people known as the Ad-hocs who keep traditional Disney running and the concept of rebooting humans after death.

In Walkaway, the ideas are extended and writ large in a post-scarcity world. Normal folk live in a place called 'default'. There's the zotta-rich at the top of the pyramid and they can do anything. Then there's the walkaways who slide off the edge of the world into their own self-fabricated zone using the exhaust products/feedstock from everyone else.

It strikes me as a thought experiment with characters. I'd almost, in systems engineering terms, call them actors, because as walkaways, they have a curious lack of dimensional depth. Almost like a set of artificial intelligences talking amongst themselves. It also leads to some protracted debates, which is really Doctorow's device to provide depth of exposition on a topic.

Voices in head, anyone?

When I attended the Utopia debate at Hay, I was reminded of my own impressions of the problems of any Utopia, which go right back to Thomas More and the critiques of Plato's Republic. There's the emergent need for rules and then their unintended consequences. Share stuff, don't own it. But who lives closest to the share shack? And five days at Glasto is very different from a year at Twin Oaks.

So there's inevitable flaws in Doctorow's world. It's all very well to build a happy hippy community using fabrication mechanisms that can recreate anything, but what happens the day the bad guys decide to take it over? Walkaway, obviously?

Or at a more basic level when the zottas gamify their cars with better firmware and can outmanoeuvre other vehicles. Or like Orwell's inner party can switch off their home telescreens.

Along the way there's the reboot/uploading theme - putting one's consciousness onto a system. It's been popularly explored in Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror series, with checkpointed versions of self screamingly relegated to the chores or neural network in a jar type San Junipero era-hopping.

I guess it's an interesting idea to re-examine at different points in one's real life too. I'm reminded of a favourite 1970s Roy Harper love song:

We're just spinning leaves in the flight of a dawn, little girl. Falling through an eternal horizon of time. But as we lie here I'd like to think that all we've got will be ours forever.

Don't you think we're forever.

But in a different frame of mind I'd think of a gloomier Jeff Mangum's two headed boy:

All floating in glass. The sun it has passed. Now it's blacker than black. I can hear as you tap on your jar. I am listening to hear where you are.

Whew. So Doctorow is dealing with complex stuff that arcs from Plato into the future. He's had to build a world or two to make the story and then throw in ideology and economic theory.

A tall order, particularly for a prolific and on-trend writer. Even in the time since this was written, some things have moved along. Remember it's a published 2017 book, but there's almost an over-emphasis on 3D printing and other once zeitgeisty concepts.

There's oblique humour in amongst the geekish descriptions and dialogues. In a proper game-playing moment a Hunger Games style blimp appears and rescues some of our protagonists from a particular point of conflict. Time for a jump-cut fast forward to allow the machine to reset.

Weirdly, it was the frequently crashing AI called Dis, with her existential crises that propelled me through the middle section of the book. I guess the portrayal of Dis didn't have to try as hard as some of the others, with their multiple names and thigh-slapping backward references to storybook characters.

I'm glad to have read it, although my reading process changed to speed-reading for the later part of the book. Still, I suppose one day we'll be able to upload the entire content in a matter of minutes.

Here's Roy Harper.

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