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Minor Gripe

2021-03-14 -- Book: Walkway

Chris Ertel

Introduction

Finished Cory Doctorow’s 2017 Walkaway: A Novel today. I probably still need to get my review up of Mussolini’s biography, but I kinda just want some escapism, so I read this.

The author

Doctorow isn’t a new author for me–I’ve enjoyed his Makers and really enjoyed his short story “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth”, as well as his 28c3 talk on “The coming war on general computation. He’s something like 50 now (Wikiedpia has his birth year as 1971), and has been most prolific in the last two decades. Lots of awards, editor at Boing-Boing and frequent contributor, and generally well-regarded author.

His schtick is DRM and post-scarcity/maker stuff (more on that later) and I’d peg him ideologically as compatible with Stallman, just without the bad press and with more tact/approachability. Especially Makers echoed Stallman’s “The Right to Read”, but also brought in some other interesting cultural commentary and some notes on politics/people.

I’d love share a beer with him, but I also can’t help but think that between the XKCD reference and the talks at Google and general mainstreaming, Doctorow has maybe been turned into the loyal opposition by the system he writes about destroying–this of course being the asymptotic behavior of embeddings in capitalist realism, but that’s neither here nor there. I bet if I read more of his stuff I’ll get a better feel for him.

The book

Some spoilers beyond this point.

Walkaway tracks some people as they meet up at a “communist party” (ha ha) where unused production capacity is seized by a one-night event and used to build things people need and provide a venue for having fun. Cops show up, people run off, and they end up deciding to “go walkaway”…that is, to reject “default” society and instead join the rootless, wandering, egalitarian maker/hacker/philosopher movement that inhabits and grows in the decaying matter of latest-stage capitalism.

Periodically, they’re set upon by forces directed by “zottas”–an economic class so absurdly wealthy that they are portrayed as some eldritch/alien evil–and along the way they encounter brain-scanning technology and then the plot shifts to allow for Singularity-style uploads of people while default continues cracking down on them. Eventually, they win? Sorta? The zottas are still around (though pulled back into enclaves), and the people/protagonists have started families, moved into space, and all sorts of things.

The book mainly follows the same few characters around, and plays a bit fast and loose with timejumps and skipping over important things. There are a lot of neat neologisms and meme references (that’re probably going to age poorly), but I didn’t find them too annoying (contrast with the fake nostalgic pastiche of Ready Player One). There is some exposition dialogue and discussions between characters, especially early on, about the philosophical underpinnings of going walkaway, and at least at first glance these seem reasonable (more on this later)…but it always kind of interrupts the flow of the narrative and feels like a cutscene. I’ve suffered through the many long speeches in Atlas Shrugged and so I wasn’t scared off, but I can’t claim the asides were integrated cleanly into the story.

Observations

(I’m still sorting out if I like this format and flow for my book writeups; I apologize for any awkwardness.)

One neat idea of this book is that when you reboot a person’s brain scan to run it–yes, apparently the cure for death is to dockerize humans–you run the risk of the persona becoming unstable as it faces the fact of its own death. The solution is to tweak the parameters of the persona a bit until it stabilies, which has some shades of the rationalist Murder-Gandhi thought experiment, but Doctorow doesn’t really do anything with that idea beyond occasional notes that some people are better suited to being spun up than others as sims.

And that…is about the extent of interesting ideas. I might be jaded from having already read Makers, which covered the aspects of “hey what if we could just make everything we wanted, what would that look like” pretty well. Let’s talk about the misses.

Probably the most overriding, constant miss for me was that this is super soft science fiction. Like, I can forgive handwavey physics millenia in the future. I can buy Unobtainium or particular exceptions, consistently applied, to a few hundred years away. But, if your near-future story is within a few decades, I’m going to be really distracted if you get sloppy. And boy howdy, does Doctorow get sloppy. I’m not always looking for rigorous mathematical proofs out in the margins, but I’m going to claim the following:

Ertel’s Law of Scifi Explanation: The closer to the current time period your story is, the more you have to show your work or follow established realities of engineering.

The idea that the brain scans are trivially moved around via wireless or other internet uplinks, especially in a hostile environment, also strains my suspension of disbelief.

One of the recurring things the book takes for granted is printing of materials and scavenging of feedstock. Because Doctorow doesn’t put nanojiggers as tech that really exists, this is presumably the tech level we’re at right now in 3D printing plus a few decades of work. And like, we’re still not reliably printing things and we sure aren’t to the point where these things happen quickly. Moreover, the book acts like the feedstock for making stuff is just kinda around…for metal, plastics, and integrated circuits. There isn’t any talk of guerilla chip fabs or desktop silicon lithography, so it’s totally unclear to me how they’re able to print anything more intersting than little plastic baubles. Even a throwaway scene of people scrapping PCBs to get SMD capacitors and chips would’ve shut me up, but we didn’t even get that.

In a similar vein–and this is even more egregious given Docotorow’s time with the EFF and presumably experience with software development–there is this kind of implied “everybody knows how to code” thing going on, which is just a little off. Some basic level of competency with computer systems makes sense, but it seems like a large number of the walkaways are all mid-to-high level programmers, which doesn’t seem right given their vastly differing backgrounds.

There is also the idea that the worldwide mass of programmers can agree on anything and ship good enough software by working together. I think that Doctorow is still a bit stuck in the mindset of maybe the earlier days of open-source software and wikis, and vastly vastly oversestimates the degree of cooperation and technical acumen in open-source communities. Like, there are throwaway references to differing standards and whatnot, but the overall flow of the story requires that software just all kinda magically works together and that people just hop in and out of different codebases.

(Here, honestly, Gibson’s Neuromancer has an edge–precisely because of the lack of familiarity with tech the hand-waving works, and the repurposing of high-tech artifacts by low-life cyberpunks on the street in ugly ways works really well. Walkaway presents kind of an idealized, shiny version that grounds the tech just enough to be unbelievable to me.)

Another thing that’s really missing from this idyllic view of software is that most of it, in real life, is payed for by companies. In Walkaway, there is some mention of that, but not enough given the setting’s antagonism towards capitalisic technology.

I can go on and on grousing about the technical stuff, but it’s the setting, core characters, and narrative that really made me bummed.

The setting is near future final-stage capitalism. Most of the story takes place in Canada (okay, sure!), and the entire world seems to be in a sort of…economic slump, sorta kinda? It’s not really explained super well other than to suggest that a handful of zotta-wealthy people have godlike amounts of pull, and everybody else is a wage slave. But, like, you have to explain that better. Orwell’s 1984 explained in pretty good detail how you ended up with the social castes and what life was like for them, as did Huxley’s Brave New World, as did many other works of fiction–hell, Stephenson’s Snow Crash depicted much a similar state of capitalism but also showed enough of the day-to-day that it made sense. Doctorow has some characters mouthpiece a bit about things, but never really shows any of it.

There are still countries, and police and politics are a thing, but all of them are so reduced to caricature and set-dressing that the setting suffers. The environment is shown to be in a bad way–including a pretty implausible bit about needing spacesuits to traverse an area that might have some asbestos, which is again so over-the-top absurd that it makes Stephenson’s Zodiac downplayed by comparison–but that really isn’t explored.

The economy is shown to be in some form of ruination, but again there is no real substantive exploration of that on par with the pessism of, say, Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Calorie Man”. The zottas are InHuMaN aNd EvIl, but not in the ways that Gibson explored in the Sprawl trilogy, not in the monstrous capitalism of Bacigalupi’s “The Fluted Girl”, or in the cut-throat business dealings of Kollins’ The Unincorporated Man.

This is really, I think, due to a deeper problem with the author’s desire to tell this story of revolution without actually putting in enough work to set the stage.

From a pure writing standpoint, even Makers at least showed what and why the antagonists were doing. Even Ayn Rand managed to portray her villain’s internal lives and worldview, one way or the other–the zottas (especially the main antagonist) are so little shown and their motives so little explored that this revolutionary screed just seems really slapdash. If the rest of the writing was better I’d take this as a narrative technique to emphasizse the reactionary nature of the walkaways–leading their happy isolated lives until the Big Evil Zottas show up to periodically kick over their nice things and deliberately ignoring the zottas the rest of the time. I think that’d be a cop-out but I can see how one might deliberately go in that direction for literary points, but like Walkaway makes it painfully clear it isn’t about that life.

This lack of action in favor of reaction on the part of the nominal protagonists also just really fucks up the pacing. There aren’t really any decisions made by the protagonists–other than the initial “let’s go walkaway, lol!” moment, I’d be hard-pressed to find a single important decision any of them actually make that they then had to deal with the consequences of. Other people make decisions, like taking two mercs hostage indefinitely, but the main cast just kinda trundles along like a Disney amusement ride. The fact that even the story gets bored and timeskips for months and years and eventually even decades at a time is further evidence to me of this problem.

(And to be clear: it’s okay to have the protagnoists be reacting the entire time. That’s literally how Nolan’s The Dark Knight worked, with the heros continually playing catchup to the Joker. At the same time, we got to see the Joker doing his thing. There is no such perspective in Walkaway. McTiernan’s Die Hard is maybe the best version of this, but it also gives the protagonist more decision-making. Come to think–ah, that’s an essay for another day.)

Speaking of the protagonists, they aren’t charactertized enough in my opinion. Sure, they have facts. I could make trading cards for them–Etcetera built blimps, Iceweasel is a zotta rebelling against her family, Seth is a silly-but-sarcastic horndog, and so forth. I couldn’t for the life of you write a few paragraphs really explaining their motivations, and I almost certainly can’t write them into other situations–the effort just wasn’t spent to flesh out their personalities that much. And no, arguments and exposition about walkaway philosophy don’t count as character building.

This is a gripe of mine–at several points, the story will just stop so that characters (usually Limpopo or Iceweasel) can have discussions with other characters selling their point of view. And usually, this is so one-sided that you almost expect the asides to end with “…and everybody clapped!”. Best example of this is probably when Limpopo disagrees with somebody about gamification: her position is never really explained, the opponent never really talks about where it worked, but the author lets her win the argument basically unopposed. Similarly, whenever Iceweasel talks to her zotta father in defense of walkaway philosophy, there’s never really a good argument from the other side why the capitalist system is reuqired. Done differently, this could be an opportunity to explore a fundamental disconnect in worldview between the two (which Doctorow kinda hints at but doesn’t land well) or that maybe there is no sound argument for their flavor of ultimate capitalism. Unfortunately, to really do that, they have to have a better discussion than they do. Like, Heinlen did a better job in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress with de la Paz lecturing Mannie on political science and anarchism and made it flow better. Heinlen, writing his characters talking about anarchism and libertarianism, managed to keep it from being too preachy and interrupting flow. Heinlen.

Speaking of not giving the opposition enough time, there’s also this constant supression of the bad parts of walkaway life in the story that get to be really annoying. Like, theivery exists (and happens immediately to the protagonists when they first walkaway) and oblique mention is made of other violence, but we never really see any of it. Limpopo is mentioned to have a dark past by a few characters, but nothing is ever done with it. The sheer happy fully automated luxury gay space communism is neat, but after a while it kinda feels like a Potemkin village situation where the author is nudging the reader to ignore any critical thoughts about the problems of walking away.

And I guess that leaves me to gripe about the last thing I really want to: the depiction of sex and violence.

Sex in many forms is present: there’s cishet sex, some orgy, some cishomo and transhet, whatever. It’s there, it isn’t super overwrought when it shows up, and is mechnically accurate. But, the characters don’t seem to really have the chemistry required to make the sex and romance stuff work together, and the writing doesn’t quite support the characterization that would be required to have, say, romanceless sex or sexless romance due to personality. People fall in love, I guess, and they fuck, I guess, but at no point am I really sold on it. This is hammered home further when characters fret over their lovers, especially when bad things happen to their lovers. And I guess this brings me to violence.

In fiction, there’s a spectrum of how authors can handle violence–an essay I’ll probably do some day. And like, depending on the story you’re telling and how you want to tell it, you pick how you depict that violence. If you’re talking about military science fiction, you might do the grittiness of Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series and try to capture both the horror and brevity of organized mass violence. If you’re working on a smaller scale, you might want the stylized violence of Stephenson’s Snow Crash. You might go for broke with the lurid purple prose of something like Hamilton’s Anita Blake series or Correia’s Monster Hunter International. If you’re really taking your time with it, you might go for something like King’s Misery.

(And yes, there are higher-brow representations of this, like Crime and Punishment or The Stranger, but I read a lot more bad science fiction than I read good Literature and so I write what I know.)

Doctorow seems to want to have violence in this book but doesn’t commit, and that really irks me. In my opinion, if a writer shows vioelnce without talking about how shitty it is they’re glorifying it. Doctorow has a character talk about the time they were burned out of a housing settlement, but apparently this doesn’t really bother the character beyond some severe scarring on their torso–and yes, everybody deals with trauma differently, but the rest of the writing doesn’t convince me that this character is just unfettered by that. Another character has a friend die, violently, in the opening of the book, but seems pretty unafflicted by this. The number of deaths goes up during the entire book, but even before brain scans render death inconvenient there doesn’t seem to be much weight to it.

Again, in other hands, some explanatory work showing how walkaway culture has just become inured to death (which totally fits given the setting) and how the protagonists get to that point (or even better, don’t) themselves would fix this–unfortunately, Doctorow doesn’t seem to want to do this.

Another thing that he doesn’t seem to do is let his walkaways fight back. There’s talk of how they’re up against people with guns and bombs and mortars and how they just kind of tank and soak those attacks without ever doing anything beyond using non-lethals back. The author wants us to believe that the walkaways are in constant danger of lethal action from the default world and zottas, but also that they continually turn the other cheeck, but also that this doesn’t result in the extermination of the walkaways.

I’ve seen the United States fought to a standstill for two decades by people with far less technology and resources than the walkaways have here–the fact that there isn’t even really a token effort to explain why these folks never do anything back baffles me. They don’t have to win, mind you–but showing and not telling us why they have elected to flee instead of fight would make it all a lot more understandable. In its current form it feels very off.

Speaking of death, the lack of real exploration of the consequences of brain scans and simulated people is just…it’s just sad. I get that I shouldn’t hold everybody to the standards of New Age science fiction stories like Tushnet’s “In Re Glover” that really grind to a fine point the implications of their subject matter, but Doctorow doesn’t really do anything at all beyond characters commenting “huh sure is strange being a computer”. Black Mirror did this better, and it’s Black Mirror. Immortality and conciousness uploading is like Chekov’s gun: you put that out on the table during a story, you damned well better do something interesting and novel with it. Doctorow didn’t.

There’s more to pick at, but I think that’s enough for now.

Conclusion

I really wanted to like this book, and I think that it has some neat ideas in it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really explore any of those ideas particularly well, and it is so strongly wrapped up in a clear hatred and disgust for the existing late-stage capitalist system that I think Doctorow just kinda got sloppy.

If you read quickly and have an afternoon or three to blow, this is a servicable read and will be fun. But, it lacks the intellectual fulfillment of a better exploration of its premises, the literary fulfillment of better writing and use of language, and the “gee whiz” fulfillment of more action-packed stories.


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