Walkaway has some fascinating ideas from Cory Doctorow, but something about the execution in the novel seems somewhat lacking.
Walkaway tries to discuss a lot of different ideas, but one seems to be the most pertinent: what do you do if you don’t have to follow the current paradigm? The word here is post-scarcity, and Walkaway appears to be Doctorow’s attempt to walk through a version of how the future might look once humanity finally and effectively destroys death with the power of brain scanning and uploading. In other words, it’s post-death, too. Death isn’t scarce, so it seems fitting to come up with a new word for this book; Doctorow certainly doesn’t mind picking up words already extant in English and putting new meanings to them throughout, so why can’t we?
Anyway, yours truly gives Walkaway 3/5 stars, because while I enjoyed its ideas, getting through his presentation thereof was either fascinating or, well, not so much. The book is good, though.
Considering that countries like Finland have already started trying out versions of guaranteed basic income, Walkaway seems rather timely in that sense. Granted, Doctorow’s world is set about 150 years in the future, perhaps a little more, and it doesn’t seem to have affected his Canada, where the “zottas” — a prefix that brings to mind zettabytes, with the attending implication that these people are mindbendingly rich — still have a hold on pretty much everything. But it’s possible to just give up and walkaway (both a noun and a verb) into a new community.
Doctorow primarily puts us in the heads of some of the newer walkaways as well as more experienced ones. To his credit, characters like Iceweasel, Limpopo, and Gretyl make up the bulk of the story, and I found them to be the most interesting, even if the book’s jacket description mostly focuses on Hubert, Etc. However, everyone whom the narrator visits deals with their own perspectives on how and why they came to be walkaways. They each get a chance to wrestle with those ideas, trying to unlearn what they came to accept as default — Doctorow again repurposes the word — and learn a different way. They also come to terms with the simulations of people they knew, which brings it back to the post-death idea.
Everyone talks. It seems like a silly complaint, but more than once throughout the novel, characters have two or three large paragraphs solely consisting of their dialogue. (We will not spoil who.) This is not to say that no one is ever that wordy in real life. It just doesn’t make the reading experience more enjoyable to have to sift through several hundred words of someone explaining one of the concepts in the book to someone else, be it why one way of walkaway life works over another or a question on the simulations’ experience of the world, only for that to spark another long string of dialogue.
Additionally, something about the writing feels off. Doctorow likes to repeat names multiple times in short succession, resulting in sentences where two or three will start with the same word. It seems to be a matter of precision in the language, but it results in the writing feeling repetitive at points.
Fans of Doctorow will enjoy seeing him return to the adult realm, swearing and all, and may find it refreshing. Those who don’t always enjoy his work have things to look forward to here as well, but may be turned away by the odd choices made in the text.
Walkaway is out now at your bookseller of choice.