Cory Doctorow: Walkaway
Friday, May 5, 7 p.m., free (signing line with book purchase)
Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill

In his new book, Walkaway, the writer, activist, and digital polymath Cory Doctorow envisions a quasi-utopian future in which people walk away from a corrupt society that has ignored climate change and allowed inequality to rise, making new lives in the forgotten spaces of the post-industrial world.

Reluctantly dragged by his friend Seth to a rave in an abandoned factory outside Toronto, everyman protagonist Hubert meets Natalie, the daughter of an ultra-rich, connected family. Together, the three “go walkaway”, escaping (for Seth and Hubert) the drudgery of chasing a nearly meaningless paycheck that gets them nowhere, and, for Natalie, her controlling family.

Through the eyes of Limpopo, an older walkaway, we see this trio arrive, fresh-faced and “schlepping” (a derogatory term for walkaways who try to bring too much of their previous lives with them) to one of the way stations on the fringes between society and the wilderness. Limpopo teaches these newbies the ropes, and through her we also see some of the violence perpetrated against earlier walkaway settlements—and the anarchic engineering spirit keeping their projects going.

But Hubert grows restless in the cozy abundance of this tip of the walkaway iceberg, already eager to see what else the wider, wilder world has in store. When a crew of shunned “reputation economy freaks”—those obsessed with keeping score of who contributes what—arrives to take over the settlement, Limpopo, rather than fighting back, leads (in an amorphous Occupy/Wikileaks/Anonymous way) the decision to simply walk farther away and build again. In Doctorow’s future of abundance, cheap drones, massive libraries of open-source architecture and robotics code, and indefatigable rubber-meets-the-road idealism, this actually makes an impressive amount of sense.

As we get deeper into the story, it’s forgivable that the dialogue can sometimes turn into speech-length dialectic—if Doctorow can converse like this, as he did with us in advance of his appearance at Flyleaf Books on Friday, then why shouldn’t his characters? Breaking through science-fiction’s usual impasse between our politically gridlocked present and a future that feels both realistic and hopeful, Walkaway is an important, visionary book that has already earned high praise from reviewers and fellow authors like Neal Stephenson. One book blurb in particular made an interesting start for our conversation.

INDY: Let’s talk about Edward Snowden, perhaps the elephant in the room, as far as the blurbs your book has gotten is concerned. And he’s appearing via Skype for an event on your tour as well?

CORY DOCTOROW: Well, not Skype, but the incredibly cryptographically secured, free and open-source alternative that the Freedom of the Press Foundation runs. So, yeah, Walkaway is the first book that Snowden wrote a blurb for, although he’s since done a second one. I had the very kind people at McNally Jackson Books in New York print an early copy on their Espresso bookbinding machine and bicycle-messenger a copy to the ACLU, where his lawyer, Ben Wizner, is, just in time for Ben to throw it in his bag on his way to Moscow to see Ed.

That sounds like something out of one of your books!
I get goose pimples just thinking about it.

To generalize, a lot of works set in even the near future are post-apocalyptic wastelands, which shows a kind of mental block from being able to envision what an optimistic future might look like. But your book sets out this possible …
Yeah, I mean, it’s not like it’s not a disaster, right? It’s still disaster fiction. I call it an optimistic disaster novel. The idea is that what differentiates a disaster from a catastrophe is what we do about it, because, disasters, they’re inevitable, right? You could build the world’s best, most stable society, and you’d still have crappy neighbors, and microbes that would mutate into superbugs, and seas that would rise, and meteors that would crash into you. What really cleaves disaster from catastrophe is whether we cooperate when disaster strikes or we turn on each other. Because it’s obvious that you cannot recover from a disaster by fighting with each other.

When the lights go out, the way that they come on again is not because everyone grabbed their bug-out bag and went to the hills to wait for the lights to go back on. It’s because some people actually went into the middle of town and figured what made them go out, and turned them back on. Really, disaster is a challenge to us to find ways to work together, when the normal things that allow us to work together smoothly go away.

What you think people will do in times of disaster is in large part informed by the stories you’ve read and been told. All those lazy novels where the first time the lights go out, it becomes an excuse for everyone to let loose their inner sociopath and turn on each other. Those stories make you convinced that when the lights go out, your neighbor is coming over with a shotgun rather than a covered dish. The logical thing to do, if you think your neighbors are coming to eat you, is to kill them before they get there. And it’s pretty easy to see why that makes it hard to have a nice, graceful recovery from disaster. One of the things I wanted to do with this novel was recount the largely truthful facts about what happens in times of crisis, which is that, usually, most people are good to one another.

In your book, that crisis is climate change and rising income inequality, our shared, slow apocalypse, and you envision a new response it. The story focuses on a group of young people. What made them the right voices to use to tell this future history?
The walkaways’ secret magic is that they know how to coordinate themselves really cheaply. When we talk about a post-scarcity society, we usually put emphasis on how much stuff we have, but, as William Gibson said, “The future is here, it’s not evenly distributed.” One of the most important factors in abundance or scarcity is how easy it is for people who want stuff to get it, not how hard it is to make stuff. And the walkaways’ key realization is that, with networks and technology, abundance can come from being able to make a thing come into existence, or know where it is, at any given moment.

In a society where we have this gross overabundance of waste product, the exhaust stream of post-industrial society, as well as this massive overabundance of “brown field” sites that have been destroyed by industrial activity, if you can figure out how to turn garbage and superfund sites into luxury housing for you and everyone you love, then if anyone comes along and says, “Hey, that’s my useless patch of blighted dirt, and you guys are horrible squatters!” Rather than argue with them you can move on to the next patch of blighted dirt and build another luxury dwelling.

So it’s a kind of ZipCar version of fully automated leisure communism where people don’t have to necessarily own things. They just have to know how to lay hands on it when they need it, and if someone else needs it at the same time, to know where to get another one. The utopian element of this is not, as with Makers, where we have a world where manufacturing becomes a lot cheaper, or about making people want less. This is about super distribution efficiency network technology post-scarcity, where you can have everything you want because it’s really easy to marry stuff with the people who want it.

How close do you feel we are to that level of post-abundance?
I don’t want to say that we have predictions in Walkaway, because science fiction is a really crummy predictive literature. But of those three things—being able to engineer what we want, being able to engineer what we can make, and being able to engineer the ability to marry the stuff we have with the people that want it—that third one, the logistical component, is actually the most advanced, and therefore the one that’s least remarked on.

In a world where a McDonald’s hamburger can have beef from a thousand cows in it, McDonald’s is best understood as a logistics company devoted to coordinating the distribution of infinitesimal fractions of cow. It’s only secondarily a restaurant. What does Walmart do? Well, in addition to sort of the whole predatory capitalism element, Walmart manages these super long distribution and supply chains that fire one container every second, like a rail gun, out of the Port of Guangzhou toward the Port of Los Angeles, with all our Happy Meal toys and consumer electronics and clothing and everything else. That coordination stuff, that’s the invisible, amazing, transformative element that has really changed our world more than anything else, in ways large and small.

Now we have this incredibly improvisational world, where we can have these small pieces, loosely joined, of our activities and undertakings. And you see it reflected in things like Occupy, things like the rise of far-right movements, because it’s so cheap to find people like you and organize your labor together that it’s completely transformed the way that we construct our ideologies as well as our goods. At the risk of tooting my own horn, the thing that Walkaway gets that very few other people have talked about in science fiction is this profound transformative element not in manufacturing, not in philosophy and desires, but in coordination.