Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Walkaway, a novel

I don’t often review novels on this blog – in fact, I think this may be my third. Actually, the title is exactly as written above, so people know that it is ‘a novel’ (written by Cory Doctorow), as if it could be mistaken for non-fiction – I’m not sure how. To be honest, I’ve never read anything else of his, and I bought it after reading a review, which is something I rarely do. I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction, because it takes a commitment in time that one might rather spend elsewhere.

The review interested me because the novel portrays dystopia and utopia in the same story, both common themes in science fiction. There are many subgenres in sci-fi but there are 2 broad categories: speculative fiction and space opera. I tend to write space opera, though I’d call it science fantasy, because it contains fantasy elements. One of the characters in Walkaway makes the observation that ‘science fiction and fantasy are opposite sides of the same coin’; a deliberate ironic touch by the author: talking about science fiction from within a science fiction novel.

I went straight to my local bookshop after reading the review, because bookshops still exist in my part of the world – in fact, there are 2 about 5 mins from here in opposite directions; both thriving according to their managers. Sometime in the first decade of this century, Borders came to Melbourne with the intention of putting every other bookshop out of business, which is the American business model. Well, Borders are long gone and the locals are still going, so sometimes the American model doesn’t work in Australia, which probably has more to do with our small population base than anything else. I’m not an economist so others may be able to enlighten me.

Back to Walkaway: it’s based on a dichotomy which some may say is reflected in our current political climate, which is why it is worthy of a blog post. But that’s only partly true, even though the book is very political and the author would like to think: visionary. Personally, I‘m not so sure on the last point. One day, I’ll make my own attempt at trying to predict what makes a better world, but I’m the first to admit that most such attempts get it woefully wrong, so I can’t knock the guy for his efforts, and putting it out there for others (like me) to challenge.

Someone (Peter Nicholls) once said that what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy is that it’s all about ‘what-ifs’. This is more true in speculative fiction (a good definition, in fact) than space operas, but it still applies because, almost by definition, sci-fi requires speculative technologies that probably don’t exist. I’ve also remarked elsewhere that science fiction invariably makes some comment about the current social dynamic in which it was written. Not surprisingly, Doctorow’s novel delivers on both of these in spades.

I think I can describe the premise without any spoiler alerts: basically, society has become divided between the ‘zottas’ (corporate lords and their feudal underlings) and ‘walkaways’ (hippies with magic-like technology so they don’t want for anything material). I need to explain a few things, but I should point out up front that I struggled to be engaged for much of its 500 page length. For the first half, it was a series of philosophical discussions interspersed with heavy sex scenes and martial conflict (war-like battles) – yes, I know I’ve done this myself, so I can’t throw stones. Well, actually, I can and I will as you’ll see. What happened halfway through was a fork in the plot which created genuine suspense. It wasn’t till near the end that I got truly emotionally involved and I can’t say how or why without giving things away. Now the fact that it took so long may say more about me than the book: nothing objective is more subjective than art. But enough about me.

At this point in historical time, the world is polarised in a way that I haven’t seen since the 1960s, and to some extent the novel extrapolates that polarisation into the future. The Left and the Right are getting further apart all over the Western world, and Doctorow has taken that to one of its logical conclusions (with significant help from technologies yet to be invented) whereby he’s dressed one up as evil and the other as virtuous. I tend to agree with Sam Harris (I don’t agree with him on much) that the far left is just as dangerous, volatile and violent (perhaps more so) as the far right. But letting that one through to the keeper, Doctorow allows his ‘walkaway’ characters to espouse his particular utopian worldview. Now, as an author, I need to point out that fictional characters don’t always express the views of their creator, and, in fact, an author’s fiction is all the better when he or she keeps his or her opinions out of it. Having said that, Walkaway is unapologetically a polemic, and needs to be assessed as one.

For a start, the novel is full of techno-jargon that the reader has to assimilate and learn as they proceed; basically making assumptions or ignoring it in the hope that it doesn’t get in the way of the plot. The story is set in Canada but it feels distinctly Californian: not just the language and sexual mores, but the whole hippy combined with silicon valley on steroids thing. I’ve visited and worked in California (for about 3 months, 15 years ago) but California as a culture has been broadcast to the English-speaking world, and beyond, since the 1960s, through TV, movies and computer games. Anyway, in a nutshell, Doctorow’s utopia is the counter culture with AI – very advanced AI.

As a plot device, there are very convenient technologies, which allows one to make just about anything, including food, homes, transportation, you name it. The hippy group are called ‘walkaways’ because, not only did they walk away from society, called ‘default’, but they can walk away from anything they’ve built and start all over again. That’s a fundamental premise of this ‘new’ societal order. Another fundamental premise is that theirs is a leaderless society and that there are no ‘snowflakes’ – people who think they are special.

I have philosophical problems with all of this, but then it is a philosophical manifesto dressed up as a good versus evil fiction. Ah, that’s why the author feels compelled to tell us it’s ‘A Novel’ on the front cover.

For a start, I don’t believe in leaderless societies. I’ve never seen a leaderless project of any nature that’s worked. I wrote, way back when I started this blog, a post called Human Nature, where I contended that leadership is a fundamental aspect of humankind, but it only works when those being led are invested in the leadership. In other words, they need to believe that the leader has the requisite skills and expertise to lead in that particular endeavour, whatever it might be: a sporting event, an engineering project, a nation, a theatrical production. I once wrote an essay on leadership, before I had a blog, but, in essence, I argued that a leader is best measured by the successes of those he leads rather than his own successes as an individual. In other words, good leaders bring out the best in people.

I find this whole ‘snowflake’ thing just bullshit, but I admit that’s my own particular perspective based on my own experience. I live and grew up in a society where the greatest ‘sin’ was to have ‘tickets on yourself’. This means that in whatever you do you’re judged on your current endeavours and should not take for granted whatever respect you’ve earned. I think this is very healthy and effectively punishes complacency without throwing away whatever you’ve gained. In walkaway society, the characters tend to conflate ‘snowflakiness’ with leadership.

I mentioned the plot device that allows walkaway characters to magically invent anything they need through ultra-superior technology – I don’t know how else to describe it. I’ve spent a working lifetime in engineering, so I know the true value of infrastructure and our dependency on it. There are so many things we take for granted (like sewerage) that we don’t appreciate what life would be like without them. I mention sewerage, because, of all the utilities, it would have the biggest and earliest impact if they all failed. My point is that, like everything technological that we take for granted, most people have no knowledge of its underpinnings or how they’d cope without it. Doctorow’s plot device attempts to cover this with an internet-like infrastructure called ‘interface’, energy from hydrogen ‘cells’, virtually 3D printable anything, including food if required, and transportation with blimps; all without anything resembling an economy.

I wouldn’t be giving too much away if I mention that one of the technological inventions that the walkaways have is the ability to upload (or download) their consciousness into AI. I think this is called the singularity. I admit that I am sceptical about this particular futuristic prediction, but given that it’s a work of fiction, I look at it as the ‘fantasy’ side of the same coin, that one of the characters conveniently reminded us of. My aversion to this scenario is that, personally, I don’t want immortality, in a machine or any other form. I’ve actually addressed this issue in my own fiction, so it’s there for someone else to take apart if they want to.

To be fair, a lot of people will enjoy this book, and some (if not many) will find my criticisms harsh. Arthur C Clarke once famously said (or wrote) that “any advanced enough technology is indistinguishable from magic” (that may not be verbatim but it’s close enough). All fiction is a blend of fantasy and realism, including mine, and the mix varies depending on the author and the subject. Science fiction novels can explore alternative societies, which is one of the things that attracted me to it when I was young. As I alluded to above, Doctorow’s novel comes across as a philosophical treatise, which I think is flawed, and it’s completely dependent on technology that’s indistinguishable from magic.