Tuesday, April 25, 2017


"Walkaway" is the latest novel by Cory Doctorow, 2017, 384 pages. I was eagerly awaiting this novel - I have mentioned how "I really want science fiction to turn its thinking to how we can create modern systems of governance to implement a post scarcity utopia.", and this is Doctorow's take on the subject.

I totally scored like a month ago. After babysitting my 2 grandsons in Louisville, I lunched with my old friend Michael Boggs. He and his wife Carol own Carmichael's Bookstore, "Louisville's oldest independent bookstsore". We ate at the Caspian Grill right next door to their Frankfort Rd store - I had a delicious gyro. We then went back to the store, and Michael presented me with their prerelease copy of "Walkaway", FTW! So I actually read the book about a month ago. I decided it would be impolite not to wait until its April 25 release date to comment on it - plus I wanted the eBook to cut/paste some excerpts.

The book is attracting a fair amount of attention. Here are 2 blog posts on it from today:

I will repeat my verbiage from my post on "New York 2140" by Kim Stanley Robinson, blogged here.

I strongly recommend that you purchase "Walkaway" and read it right now. It addresses strategies for defeating the .01% (zottas in "Walkaway") on our way to a post scarcity utopia. Plus it's an enjoyable, well-written novel, with good plotting, an interesting variety of characters, and a satisfactory conclusion without any deus-ex-machina. When you have finished reading it yourself, you can come back here and share my spoiler-filled thoughts on the book. If you are not going to read it yourself, then by all means just forge ahead.

*********************** SPOILER ALERT ***********************
You know, "Walkaway" almost seems YA - but the main characters are in their 20s, not teenagers, so I guess not. It is set in the 2070's. The main technological advance is that 3d printers can produce almost anything from readily available stock. But, there are, of course, copyright and intellectual property issues. The landscape of the US seems pretty much like "rust belt everywhere". The basic principle of Walkaway is just that - to walk away from the standard economy ("the default") and live in what is basically Burning Man on steroids. Doctorow has definitely gotten a lot out of his long time Burning Man participation. I had to look it up, and, indeed, Burning Man is a gift economy, as Walkaway culture is.

The 1st 1/2 or so of the book is our protagonists learning the ropes in the Walkaway culture. Then we get our main plot element: the Walkaways develop immortality, in the form of personality upload to silicon. Of course, the zottas are all over wanting to take control of that. At 1st, I was kind of thinking "this seems like a tangent, I wish he'd stayed focused on the economic and political issues", but then I realized, as I have commented on before (here for example), that once we get life extension or immorality, the .01% will do everything they can to keep for themselves, at the least by making it cost $1B or so. So this is indeed an important issue in any discussion of how the rest of us attempt to come to terms with the .01%.

Meanwhile, Doctorow does some serious venting about things that he finds offensive. I counted 4 major ones. Time for our excerpts. Reading the hardcopy, I dogeared the pages from which I wanted to capture excerpts, as opposed to highlighting them as I normally would in an eBook. I should have used a highlighter as well, I go back to these pages and am not sure what I wanted to capture. Ha ha, eBooks for me!

  1. The .01%. Doctorow is totally up on CEOs as psychopaths, and the malignant psychology of the .01% in general.
    “Exactly,” she said. “So people like my dad are good at figuring out how to take your company with its ‘smart people’ and get it declared illegal, poach its best ideas, or just buy it and leverage it and financialize it until it doesn’t make anything except for exotic derivatives and tax credits. And the thing is, that’s not good enough for him! He wants to be the one percent of the one percent of the one percent because of his inherent virtue, not because the system is rigged. His whole identity rests on the idea that the system is legit and that he earned his position into it fair and square and everyone else is a whiner.”


    “That’s the tragedy of the commons? A fairy tale about giving public assets to rich people to run as personal empires because that way they’ll make sure they’re better managed than they would be if we just made up some rules? God, my dad must love that story.”


    “I’d been walkaway for nearly a year before I understood this. That’s what walkaway is—not walking out on ‘society,’ but acknowledging that in zottaworld, we’re problems to be solved, not citizens. That’s why you never hear politicians talking about ‘citizens,’ it’s all ‘taxpayers,’ as though the salient fact of your relationship to the state is how much you pay. Like the state was a business and citizenship was a loyalty program that rewarded you for your custom with roads and health care. Zottas cooked the process so they get all the money and own the political process, pay as much or as little tax as they want. Sure, they pay most of the tax, because they’ve built a set of rules that gives them most of the money. Talking about ‘taxpayers’ means that the state’s debt is to rich dudes, and anything it gives to kids or old people or sick people or disabled people is charity we should be grateful for, since none of those people are paying tax that justifies their rewards from Government Inc.

    “I live as though the zottas don’t believe they’re in my species, down to the inevitability of death and taxes, because they believe it. You want to know how sustainable Belt and Braces is? The answer to that is bound up with our relationship to the zottas. They could crush us tomorrow if they chose, but they don’t, because when they game out their situations, they’re better served by some of us ‘solving’ ourselves by removing ourselves from the political process, especially since we’re the people who, by and large, would be the biggest pain in the ass if we stayed—”

  2. He has not much love for special snowflakes. I think that this is also a refutation of the "Great Man" theory, which I've talked about, say, here.
    Everyone talked about special snowflakes, and it was the kind of thing that was an insult from a stranger but not from a friend. You weren’t supposed to need to be a special snowflake, because the objective reality was that, important as you were to yourself and the people immediately around you, it was unlikely that anything you did was irreplaceable. As soon as you classed yourself as a special snowflake, you headed for the self-delusional belief that you should have more than everyone else, because your snowflakiness demanded it. If there was one thing that was utterly uncool in walkaway, it was that self-delusion.

    “You know that this is the love that dare not speak its name around here? There have been one hundred billion humans on the planet over the years, and statistically, most of them didn’t make a difference. The anthropocene is about collective action, not individuals. That’s why climate change is such a clusterfuck. In default, they say that it’s down to individual choice and responsibility, but reality is that you can’t personally shop your way out of climate change. ..."

  3. He is not a fan of the reputation economy and gamification. I'm down with that, the last project I worked on before I retired we gamified at one point, and I thought it was kind of stupid. I have 0 interest in being the mayor of my local BW3's. And I am just not that into competition. But, I share with one of "Walkaway"'s characters a sense of pride when you annotate the code and my name shows up on many, many lines, or shows up in mass quantities in the commit history log.
    “I don’t look at stats. Which is the point. I couldn’t write the whole thing on my own, and if I could, I wouldn’t want to, because this place would suck if it was just a contest to see who could add the most lines of code or bricks to the structure. That’s a race to build the world’s heaviest airplane. What does knowing that one person has more commits than others tell you? That you should work harder? That you’re stupid? That you’re slow? Who gives a shit? The most commits in our codebase come from history—everyone who wrote the libraries and debugged and optimized and patched them. The most commits on this building come from everyone who processed the raw materials, figured out how to process the raw materials, harvested the feedstock, and—”
  4. Not much love for our modern surveillance state either.
    "... No one wanted to say the word ‘walkaway’ because it was a superstition, say their names three times fast and the spies would target you for full-take lifelong surveillance. Anyone who knew walkaways were a thing couldn’t be trusted.”
In keeping with modern progressive science fiction (odd that I have to use that adjective), Doctorow piles on normalizing LGBTQ people. 2 major characters are a lesbian couple, and 1 is transgender. Keep on keeping on, good stuff.

I noted earlier the blog post comparing "Walkaway" to William Gibson's "The Peripheral". I think the far more relevant comparison is to Kim Stanley Robinson's (KSR) "New York 2140", blogged here. I read that right after I read "Walkaway", almost makes one believe in synchronicity.

Doctorow's story occurs ~60 years in the future, time enough to allow for ubiquitous 3D printing of almost anything to become a given. KSR's story occurs 120 years in the future, and the only thing which that allows time for is for the climate crisis, in particular sea level rise and super storms, to have become bad enough to have made people become really desperate. Doctorow's solution requires people to adopt the principles of Burning Man and a gift economy. Yah, us old hippies are totally down with that, but for your average Trump voter, I'd say that's pretty doubtful. KSR's plan, of a general rent strike, I think might actually appeal to Trump voter types as well as old hippies. So I really felt like KSR has the better ideas here.

Also, at 1 point, one the protagonist's asshole zotta dad points out that the Walkaways are violating all kinds of patents and other IP rent schemes. As the novel features for-profit prisons, it seems like the zottas would have been happy to throw all the Walkaways into those prisons and thereby financialize them.

One final point. I wish this could have been more spelled out in "Walkaway". Doctorow had an article in the most recent issue of Wired on the difference between dystopias and utopias. When it all goes to shit, a dystopia happens when your neighbor shows up at your door with a gun, demanding your resources - think "Road Warrior". In the same scenario, when your neighbor shows up at your door with the food from their freezer, so everyone can cook it up and discuss how everyone can survive, over a communal dinner, that is the start of a utopia. That thought is indeed food for the soul.

We need a summit. Doctorow, KSR, Karl Schroeder, and throw in David Brin for good measure. I would love to see if they could come up with a plan The Plan. We are so close on this ...

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