With this post we’ll begin our reading of Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, starting with the first two chapters.
In this post I’ll begin with a quick plot summary (which contains spoilers) of chapters 1 (“Communist Party”) and 2 (“You All Meet in a Tavern”), followed by some reflections and discussion questions.
The plot so far
The action takes place in a near future world, where the very wealthiest (the “zottarich” or “zottas”) dominate the rest of us in “default” society. It seems like a world almost beyond scarcity, as some form of 3d printing allows the creation of many of life’s necessities. Some people have chosen to flee default, inhabiting rust belt areas, and becoming the titular walkaways (717).
We begin in the Toronto area, where several main characters meet for a “Communist Party”, wherein people print, hack, and otherwise liberate stuff to share for free. They include “Hubert Etc.”, a former zeppelin entrepreneur, Seth, his sarcastic friend, and Natalie Redwater, the daughter of a zotta. They get to know each other at the party, witness a friend die in an accident, then make their way to Natalie’s home, where they argue with her father, then decide to walkaway.
Chapter 2 takes us deeply into walkaway society by focusing on Limpopo, who works hard to maintain a bed and breakfast. She meets our first-met protagonists in their early walkaway days and with new names (Natalie is now Iceweasal), and offers them some instruction. Hubert etc, Seth, and Natalie learn about the world through conversation, getting ripped off, and doing some work. Limpopo describes some political arguments, including one that became lethal; Jimmy, an advocate of competition and gamification, appears.
There are plenty of nerdy references throughout the novel, such as “Free as in free beer”, a nod to free software discussions (63), or a band named for internet meme/law Rule 34. Speaking of open source, Vinay Gupta‘s hexayurt open source housing project appears (1285).
A science fiction vision appears as a threat familiar to William Gibson readers or fans of Altered Carbon:
Limpopo remembered Langerhans’s certainty, his low, intense ranting about the coming age of immortal zottas whose familial dynasties would be captained by undying tyrants. (1069)
Dystopian Orwell is briefly touched on (280). BF Skinner is namechecked (1780). These help frame the negative future.
A key theme is how we handle a post-scarcity economy. Natalie advises that people think of economics in terms of “the gift economy. Everything freely given, nothing sought in return.” (175). Limpopo argues for acting entirely by intrinsic motivation:
In a gift economy, you gave without keeping score, because keeping score implied an expectation of reward. If you’re doing something for reward, it’s an investment, not a gift.(869)
Jobs seem rare, “[b]ecause there aren’t any ‘jobs’ left. Just financial engineering and politics.” (647).
Another theme is the drive for utopia, or, at least, for a seriously better life. That’s the goal of walkaway culture. Many times the novel will repeat forms of the phrase “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” (first on 733) (inscribed on the Scottish Parliament building):
Technologies: many are currently available. Drones are plentiful, and used by both law enforcement and those who would evade the law. Various forms of 3d printing are commonplace. Surveillance can be deployed and resisted by masks or masking one’s data (“lockdown, getting their systems to go fully dark on their way to parties”, 337). The wealthiest can spend to alter the digital world, as when Natalie’s father is noted to be able to “buy… his way through traffic” (512). Some deploy pain rays to control other people (1298). The maker movement is alive and well with walkaways.
- What do you make of the walkaway world so far?
- How much of walkaway life is shaped by today’s debates over social media and online life?
- Several times characters link economics and sexuality, as when Limpopo refers to the default world as a “sex and scarcity death-cult” (1136). Do you see sex and romance changing as we move away from economic scarcity as the book describes?
- Default seems to be at a state of near-war with the walkaways. How do you think this tension will develop in the rest of the novel?
For next Monday, May 7, we’ll proceed to chapters 3 (“Takeoff”), 4 (“Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig”), and 5 (“Transitional Phase”).