Review of Walkaway by

Book cover for Walkaway

Cory Doctorow is Doctorowing it up again, by which I mean writing intense polemics thinly veiled as science-fiction stories that give you a hell of a philosophical rush. Walkaway is about the decline of capitalism after we can print most of the things we need. It’s about people attempting to check out of “default”—but what if default is more like the Hotel California? As with all of Doctorow’s books, this is dense and steeped with big ideas. It’s a great trip. Unlike all his books, though, this one left me more unsettled than stimulated. I actually kind of regret reading it. And it’s not that it’s bad, but it left me in a bad head-space.

There are a lot of interesting science fiction premises here, but the one that really captivates me is the mind scanning/uploading (or “backup” as one of the characters summarizes it). Science fiction has long been wrestling with the consequences of being able to upload human minds and run them, either as disembodied “sims” or by copying them into cloned or robot bodies. And I should say that I don’t think any one book can adequately cover all of the various philosophical positions and concerns surrounding this issue. That’s the value of the science fiction genre as a whole: it is this massive, sprawling, decades-long conversation in which different books cover overlapping ground. You can’t just read one, and you can’t physically read them all, but you can read enough to understand the discussion.

Philosophy of mind has long intrigued me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about brains in jars and upload and reading all sorts of science fiction that deals with it. Although I find the superhuman abilities that often accompany upload very appealing, I can’t shake the conviction that you are not you without your meat-body. (Doctorow engages with this by pointing out one could simulate feedback to one’s autonomic nervous system to mimic having a body, but I’m still not sold.) Anyway, that’s why this aspect of Walkaway grabbed at me even more than the post-scarcity politics amidst the death throes of late-stage capitalism.

Doctorow’s characters grapple deeply with all these thorny questions of identity and consciousness when talking upload. Their solution to the idea that you wouldn’t be you is just to tweak the “parameters” of your simulation until you are just enough not-you to be OK with the idea of being a brain in a jar. It’s an intriguing idea, I admit, and a clever solution that also acknowledges that, essentially, uploading opens us up to editing. The related torture broached in the book—the idea that anyone could boot a copy of you and torture you for all eternity, with no way for you to ever turn yourself off or ignore the torture—is, uh … yeah, that freaks me out.

And so I wonder if uploading is one of those things that just means we’re done. I mean, Dollhouse is fairly adamant and chilling in that regard.

Then again, maybe I’m just a simulation as it is … hmm.

But I digress.

Like I said above, Walkaway is one of those books I almost wish I hadn’t read, not because it’s bad, but because it bummed me out. It isn’t even a particularly pessimistic or cynical book, but there is a strong element of pragmatism to counter Doctorow’s techno-utopian ideas. This is what will happen if innovation drags the 1% kicking and screaming into the future. And, spoiler alert, it doesn’t turn out well for anyone, in any category.

I’m not saying I need my science fiction to always be uplifting or hopeful. That being said, I also don’t think this was a mood thing—I was in a pretty good mood going into Walkaway and looking forward to my annual dose of Doctorow, but the book just tasted sour. Maybe it’s just the current political climate; maybe this just hits too close to home. It feels too near future, uploading and fabricators aside, too realistically an extrapolation of what our society might be like given where we’re at now.

I think it also doesn’t help that none of the characters particularly interested me. They were fine, in their way. I felt sympathy for Natalie/Iceweasel’s confinement and torture; I cheered when Limpopo stood up to the authorities to the bitter end. But none of the characters stood out for me and became someone I could say I admired. Maybe this is Doctorow’s intention; maybe he wants you to see that these are all just “people like us” who are struggling to get by.

Finally, I wasn’t a huge fan of the vignette nature of the narrative. It’s almost a series of short stories in the way it’s divided up. This probably contributed to not feeling connected to the characters.

So Walkaway is one of those novels that I admire for its sheer audacity of thought but that, as a story, I don’t particularly like. I expect Doctorow’s storytelling to err on the side of didactic, but this goes beyond that. It’s a little bit me, and I don’t want to whine too much about it. But this just lacks the narrative grace that makes something as disconcerting as Lilith’s Brood so amazing. There are moments of brilliance to it—there’s this whole diatribe about how governments prefer calling people “taxpayers” instead of “citizens” to emphasize the transactional nature of the relationship. Alas, these float between vast sections of potent yet unsatisfying philosophical narrative.

Engagement

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