Walkaway: Book of the Month May 2023

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow cover art
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow cover art

There is a history of walking away in utopia, think The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (Le Guin) or Thoreau leaving civilisation behind for Walden Pond. So what does Cory Doctorow bring to the table?

Well, it includes 3D printed guesthouses with inbuilt Japanese-style onsens, enzymes that turn water into beer and oh yeah uploading your brain so you never ever die. But if life’s that good for the walkaways that’s obviously going to threaten the ‘zottas’* who lord over ‘default’**.

*the more-than-mega rich

**the default ultra-capitalist world from which one might decide to walk away

The novel follows the walkaways through a generation as they struggle to bring about their revolution. They negotiate utopia-building and the possibilities of a new post-human existence amongst themselves and in conflict with the zottas, who want to hang onto control and grab that immortalising new tech for themselves.

Walkaway is now the best contemporary example I know of, its utopia glimpsed after fascinatingly-extrapolated revolutionary struggle.”

William Gibson

Example of what? Who knows. If Gibson means to imply this is the best contemporary utopia out there, there’s much to debate on that point.

Cory Doctorow vs Jenny Odell

I read this in tandem with previous book of the month How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. One of the movements Odell traces in her book is ‘a dropping out, not dissimilar from the “dropping out” of the 1960s’ (xi). This led me to think the two might be thematically similar. In fact, they stand in stark contrast to each other.

I’m suggesting that we fiercely protect our human animality against all technologies that actively ignore and disdain the body, the bodies of other beings, and the body of the landscape that we inhabit.”

Odell, How to Do Nothing, p.28

Doctorow’s tech-dependent vision of a never-ending good life is in direct opposition to what Odell suggests. It gives off Futurama vibes.

“In the future, we’ll all be heads in jars,” said Groening. “But right now we can live this utopian fantasy in cartoon form.”

Source: Cartoon Brew

In Doctorow’s utopia it’s not even heads in jars, it’s minds in boxes. His seeming disdain for human animality is also reflected in a hostile landscape. Walkaways must continually be protected by buildings, vehicles or suits. Food is 3D printed not farmed. Despite the amount of sex in the book, he seems to consider embodied existence inessential.

Oh no Doctorow, it’s not eco

Where Odell asserts ‘it may only be among the most elaborate web of the nonhuman that we can most fully experience our own humanity’ (148), for Doctorow the more-than-human world hardly seems to exist. Which is unsurprising, considering the body and its biome are also apparently optional for humanity in his utopia.

This is certainly not an eco-utopia, and it is not in tune with current ecological thinking. Odell argues ‘What’s especially tragic about a mind that imagines itself as something separate, defensible, and capable of “efficiency” is […] it’s based on a complete fallacy about the constitution of the self as something separate from others and from the world’ (139). Borrowing the words of writer Alan Watts she lambasts our culture for ‘a completely false conception of ourselves as an ego inside a bag of skin’ (140). Does it burn, Doctorow?

This utopia isn’t a departure. It doesn’t depict a fundamental change in the way we perceive ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. Despite a shift to communal ownership of assets, it remains human-centred and materialistic. It is a tech-saviour story, which distances humans from the matter of the world. For all its differences, it’s same-old, same-old.

Now you, of course, may disagree. You can air your views in the comments below. Or, if you are local to Bristol, UK, come along to our next Utopian Book Collective meeting to discuss in person.