Forking the Future

Why do so many dystopian novels assume the worst of human nature? Cory Doctorow takes another path in Walkaway.

November 5, 2017

Over the weekend I spent some time with my daughter. As we walked the dog and I was saying something about how stimulating city life was, we heard a loud bang! behind us. My daughter, who is a nurse, handed me the dog’s leash and started running. By the time I got to the place were two cars were crunched together, mashed partially into a house, smoke was filling the air and people were coming outside. “Who has a fire extinguisher?” “Has someone called 911?” My daughter and a man were helping a driver out of the passenger side door of a car that was accordioned and caved in. “That’s our neighbor,” I heard more than one person say. They guided him away from where flames were beginning to lick. Someone brought a lawn chair and blankets. In time, the paramedics arrived, then police and fire. Second responders, third and fourth, all of them welcomed. The first responders were just people in the neighborhood, rushing to help. As they do.

For some reason, I’ve read a number of novels recently set in the near future, working through the implications of environmental catastrophe, economic inequality, technological advances. I’m growing impatient with many of them because they assume people, in a pinch, will turn on each other, that those who aren’t predators risk being prey. Once the threat of [fill in the blank] comes to pass, we’ll not only lose everything, we’ll be at each others’ throats.

The value of futuristic fiction is in teasing out what ifs. In Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, bioengineering runs amok, high-tech gated communities crumble, and diseases clear the way for a new world after humans have written their own ending in altered genetic code. That’s pretty grim. In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower people at least try to help one another and a teenager begins to develop a metaphysical theory of change tied to a dream of space travel. Bad things happen, but people try to help each other, too. In Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel imagines a pandemic that has wiped out most of humanity, leaving a world where the few people remaining are distrustful of strangers and religious fanatics can draw people into brutal cults, yet roving musicians and actors perform Shakespeare, holding on to the promise of art.

I started reading a review copy of another dystopian novel coming out in the spring, but when it everyone began behaving badly as soon as the grownups were no longer in Walkawaycharge, I bailed and picked up Cory Doctorow’s latest, Walkaway. It’s a utopian fork of dystopia by someone who loves technology but doesn’t love the way intellectual property regimes restrict its use. Though I didn’t find it entirely successful as a novel (the prose is . . . prosaic, the technology seems suspiciously failure-proof, and the characters won’t stop talking), it poses an interesting thought experiment: what if, in a world of abundance unevenly distributed, people simply walked away from our market-based assumptions and started new communities based on sharing and repurposing rather than ownership and consumerism? What if we refused to want stuff but instead trusted we could make whatever we needed from scraps? (That's a new wrinkle on "freedom from want.") What if resistance was not futile, but also non-violent? What if all the singular technologies Silicon Valley titans dream about, including automation reducing the need to work, the ability to fabricate all manner of things, and even to overcome death itself, weren’t the preserve of the super-rich but rather were developed by people who rejected a precarious gig economy to make a different and better world?

In between long conversations there are battles and kidnappings and sex and mind-bending plot twists as people who die live on as sentient and self-aware backups. Mixed in with “hey, what cool things could we do?” there’s also “what does it mean to be human?” and “why should we put up with things as they are when we could do better? And what does ‘better’ look like?”

Just as humor is harder to pull off than tragedy, writing hope is harder than writing despair. I appreciated the way this novel takes up the big challenges of our day and imagines not just how bad it could get but what alternatives we could create. Above all, I was grateful for the recognition that we aren’t all helpless or selfish at heart, that we have generous impulses that could save us if we put them to work, that when things go wrong, the neighbors will come out to help. As they do. 


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