The author of Little Brother and Walkaway on dystopia, the end of scarcity, and what's going to get him arrested
Cory Doctorow, of BoingBoing and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) fame, has returned to adult fiction after a long stint in the young adult hinterlands (Little Brother, Homeland). His new novel, Walkaway (Tor), circles back to the theme of his first novel, 2003's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom: the question of what a post-scarcity world might look like. A fascinating cadre of John Galt–style opters-out form the core of the new novel, but the story is concept-driven, not character-driven.
As usual, Doctorow's politics permeate his writing. And, as usual, they're just heterodox enough to provide moments of delightful confirmation bias and squirm-inducing challenge for readers of nearly every ideological stripe.
Doctorow, a civil libertarian who identifies with the political left, has staked out a broad and eccentric territory for his fiction and nonfiction beats, covering topics from privacy to drones to Digital Rights Management (DRM) to open-source software creation.
The Walkaway audiobook is a particular delight, featuring guest appearances from a ramshackle celebrity cast, including Amber Benson, Justine Eyre, Amanda Palmer, and Wil Wheaton. All versions of the novel are free from distribution-restricting DRM protections. The downside is that standard providers like Audible won't carry it.
When Doctorow stopped by Reason's D.C. office in April, he handed out credit card–shaped USB drives loaded with the audiobook on his way out the door. Hardcover review copies also shipped with a similarly sized multitool. These little flourishes bring readers a few inches closer to Doctorow's subversive worldview, where it's always possible, even admirable, to thumb your nose at the rules imposed by governments, tech companies, and just about everyone else.
Reason: Let's talk about the word dystopia. It's a word no one knew 10 years ago and now everyone says all the time about pretty much every novel ever. Is this a dystopia in Walkaway, or a utopia?
Doctorow: I think that we mistake the furniture for the theme. We tend to think of books in which things are in crisis as being dystopian novels. But really it's a very hard job to write a dramatic novel—especially in the kind of pulpy science fiction tradition—in which things aren't going wrong. So for me, the thing that cleaves a utopia from a dystopia is what [essayist and critic] Rebecca Solnit says cleaves a disaster from a catastrophe: It's what we do when things go wrong. Do people pitch in and rise to the occasion? Or do they turn on their neighbors and eat them? That's the dystopian vision. The most dystopian thing you can imagine is that, but for the thin veneer of civilization, it would be a bloodbath.
Is Walkaway a prequel to Down And Out in the Magic Kingdom? It seems like a similar universe. Has the political take-away that you would want people to get out of those two books shifted, either because your views have changed or because facts on the ground have changed?
I think science fiction is not predictive in any meaningful way.
It's certainly not great at it.
We're Texas marksmen: We fire the shotgun into the side of the barn and draw the target around the place where the pellets hit. We just ignore all those stories that never came true.
But I also think that prediction is way overrated. I like what Dante did to the fortune tellers. He put them in a pit of molten shit up to their nipples with their heads twisted around backwards, weeping into their own ass cracks for having pretended that the future was knowable. If the future is knowable then it's inevitable. And if it's inevitable, why are we even bothering? Why get out of bed if the future is going to happen no matter what we do? Except I guess you're foreordained to.
I'm not a fatalist. The reason I'm an activist is because I think that the future, at least in part, is up for grabs. I think that there are great forces that produce some outcomes that are deterministic or semi-deterministic. And there are other elements that are up for grabs.
What science fiction does is not predictive, but it is sometimes diagnostic. Because across all the science fiction that has been written and is being written, and all the stuff that's being greenlit by editors or has been greenlit by editors, and all the stuff that readers can find and raise up or ignore—there's a kind of natural selection at work. The stuff that resonates with our aspirations and fears about technology and our futures, that stuff gets buoyed by market forces, by the marketplace of ideas, and becomes a really excellent tool for knowing what's in the minds of the world.
So the book itself, considered on its own, is a good way to know what's in the mind of the writer. The books that succeed tell you what's in the mind of the world. And if there's a lot of this stuff coming to a prominence at this moment, I think it does say something about the moment that we live in, that there's a certain amount of pessimism. There's a fear that we are being stampeded towards a mutually distrustful, internally divided future where we end up attacking each other rather than pulling together. I think even the most cynical person understands that if civilization collapses and you run for the hills, you aren't going to be a part of rebuilding it. The people who are part of rebuilding are those who run to the middle and get the power plant working again, reopen the hospital, and get the water filtration plant working again.
This notion that my gain is your loss and that there's not enough to go around, and there's this big game of musical chairs and the chairs are being removed at speed, is a theme in a lot of the science fiction that's prominent right now.
Walkaway is in some ways a prequel to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I certainly reread Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom with a pen and a highlighter and some post-its and made tons of notes before I started work on Walkaway, and I have a whole file of themes that I wanted to pick up.
Some of that is the understanding that I've come to in the 15-plus years since I wrote it. And some of it is wanting to respond back to the people who read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom as a utopia and who didn't understand that there were dystopic elements.
It was a very mixed future. Reputation economics have the same winner-take-all problem—the Pikettian [problem that says the] rate of growth is always less than the rate of return on capital—and that produces insane runaway wealth disparity and dysfunction with misallocation of resources.
In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, your ability to run Disney World is based on how much esteem people hold you in. And so literally you can walk in and start handing out tickets. And if the people treat your tickets as though they're the right tickets, then you get to be the Czar of Disney World, which is the premise of the book....MUCH MORE
Yet I'm sure you get people coming up and saying to you, "Oh my God, you basically predicted Uber's reputational system!"