A review by Nalini Haynes
Etcetera and Seth attend a Communist Party: an event where a lot of people gather at a disused factory, get the machinery going and 3D print whatever the factory used to make. Some are just playing but some people need the furniture and try to take it with them.
Etcetera and Seth meet Natalie, the daughter of a wealthy family who helps run these events.
When everything goes pear-shaped — the police come to shut down the event and arrest participants — the three flee together.
Natalie’s father rescues them and takes them back to the family home. In the peace and safety of the family home, a home controlled by daddy dearest, the three dare each other to ‘go walkaway’, or join homeless alternative lifestylers.
Outside of regular cities controlled by capitalist totalitarian regimes where the 0.001% reign supreme, these cities are referred to as ‘default’. The rest of the world is ‘walkaway’.
What follows for our three intrepid heroes is a series of adventures that feel like short stories nominally linked through characters although the characters themselves feel interchangeable.
Doctorow uses this speculative fiction world to explore sociological and economic ideas within an idealized humanist framework. Most people in walkaway are either paragons of virtue or are at least as constructive and giving to one another as they are in contemporary society when they’re being paid for their work. Apparently in this utopia, living in a surveillance society is an effective control of people’s behaviour. One wonders if Doctorow has any experience of the real world where, for example, middle class employees steal from their workplaces, teams have one or two people carry the workload while others slack off and workplace kitchens are, at best, haphazardly cleaned. (In reality, used items are put back with the clean or the kitchen is left in a disgusting mess.)
Characters have lengthy and, at times, heated discussions about sociology and economy, contrasting ideals with their reality where their biggest threat is default coming to enslave and kill them all because default wants total control.
Walkaway’s utopia is contrasted with the dystopia of capitalist ‘default’ in Marxist terms and yet Doctorow does not explain how unemployed workers like Etcetera and Seth acquire food and shelter in such a bleak feudal society.
Nor does Doctorow explain how such large tracts of land became available for walkaway; one assumes some kind of catastrophe decimated the human population.
I found the flashbacks annoying: stories that, if told in the ‘present’ with a sense of immediacy building towards an unknown future, could have been tension-filled instead served to slow the story while explaining current events.
I suspect Doctorow did not intend Walkaway as a predictive text but as pure theory, engaging readers with ideas to build a resistance to current political and corporate controls. In this, Doctorow is successful. However, the text is a bit dry and the characters shallow so Walkaway will mostly appeal to hard SF fans, academics engaging with the theories presented and people who enjoy short stories.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
ISBN 10: 1786693062
Format: paperback, 384 pages
Imprint: Head of Zeus (HarperCollins)