Unschooling and revolutions: finishing Walkaway

Walkaway coverWith this post we conclude our online book club‘s reading of Cory Doctorow’s science fiction novel Walkaway.

(For the reading schedule, click here.  For all posts on this reading, click here.  For more information on our book club, click over here.)

In this post I’ll begin with a quick plot summary (which contains spoilers) of chapters 5 (“Transitional Phase”), 6 (“The Next Days of a Better Nation”), 7 (“Prisoner’s Dilemma”), and the epilogue (“Even Better Nation”), followed by some reflections and discussion questions.

But first, what have online readers thought since last time?

The book club reads

Two readers responded to last week’s reading post with comments.  Vanessa Vaile shared her personal connection to the novel’s rebel culture:

I too am finding walkaway culture very appealing — in some ways as though I have been participating in it for years unawares. Recommending to local community organizers/development types. If that only confirms their worst suspicions about me ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Scott Butki offered related applause from a different angle:

I really like this idea of a walkaway culture. Sometimes in sci fi it’s just too fantastical, i just can’t see the future turning out this way
But this, the concept that activists will get off the grid, step away from the regular world (default) and create their own cultures I can totally see that happening. And as with the social justice groups I work with that all have different styles and strategies that sometimes overlap and sometimes conflict. I can totally see walkaway culture varying greatly from group to group.

On Twitter, Liz Stevenson expressed ambivalence:

Beyond book club readers, you can find more reflections and commentary on the web.  Here’s Doctorow urging us to rethink technology for social and political liberation. I’d also like to add this video discussion about Walkaway between Doctorow and Edward Snowden (!).

The plot so far
Iceweasel escapes from her family.  Several more characters get uploaded, their minds copied into digital form.

We then race ahead decades.  Characters have aged, gotten married, had children. The previous chapters now are understood to have taken place around the time of “World War Default and the Walkaway Decade” (“which was a dumb name everyone hated, but at least it had a built-in expiry date”). ( 7355). Meanwhile, the walkaway revolution grows and the default world, decaying, reacts violently.  A climax occurs in and around a prison, with jailed characters, family members, troops, and uploads converging.

The epilogue takes place even further in the future.  People (walkaways?) have figured out how to grow human bodies, into which they can download uploaded minds.  There are rebirths and reunions.


Education continues as a theme.  We learn, for example, that today’s testing obsession helped drive walkaway culture:

There were always parents who found the risk of taking their kids out of default was less than the risk of leaving them in. The ‘accountability’ stuff in schools accelerated it—once they started paying teachers based on test scores, parents saw their kids getting crammed relentlessly by the system, no room for helping them with their problems or passions. (7401)

There is also a picture of an antiauthoritarian school, which arises in the ruins of a Flint-like poisoned-water city:

“Kids did the school.”

“Cool.” Tam enjoyed the girl’s obvious pride. “You go to classes in there?”

The girl grinned. “Don’t believe in ’em. We do peer workshops. I’m a calculus freak of nature, got a group of freaklings I’m turning into my botnet.”

Tam nodded. “Never got calculus. That lady over there with the little boy under each arm is a hero of mathematics.”  (7760)

(That should please fans of one of our other readings)

The walkaway revolution proceeds through certain developments. Suburbs of a sort emerge as barriers or interzones between walkaway and default cultures (7044).  And default collapse breeds new walkaways:

The jails had ruptured. Ruptured was the word they were using for government institutions that fell apart, turned into walkaway-style co-ops that gave away office supplies and opened up the databases for anyone who wanted a crack. She’d heard of ruptured hospitals, police departments, public housing—but jails were a new one. A big one. (7480)

Technologies: some haven’t advanced so much as gotten easier to use, and used more quickly.  For example,

The feeds zoomed in on one of the front-liners, a man, whose shoulders shook. This had to be Gordy. The crowd had identified him through gait analysis, doxxed him, walked his social graph, found a hit in a walkaway town in Wyoming, gotten Tracey out of bed, recorded the message. (8319)

In terms of references and politics, the book’s anarchist comes out more openly with passages like this:

She read books, walkaway classics, Bakunin and Illich and Luxemburg, old dead anarchists. She’d read Homage to Catalonia and felt she finally understood Orwell—the seeds of Nineteen Eighty-Four were in the betrayals and the manipulation. (6927).

But don’t miss the following lines.


  1. What do you think of the walkaway criticism of “snowflakes”?
  2. What do you make of the plot concerning two mercenaries captured and forcibly uploaded by Walkaway U?
  3. How do you think the walkaway revolution turned out?
  4. Do you see walkaway education as working in our reality?

And that concludes our reading!  Many thanks to our thoughtful readers for their contributions.

Next Wednesday, May 16th, author Cory Doctorow will join the Future Trends Forum to discuss the novel, our reading, and the future of education.  Please join us.

If you’d like to look back at previous posts about this reading, they’re all right here.

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
This entry was posted in book club and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Unschooling and revolutions: finishing Walkaway

  1. MaverickScfi says:

    In response to Q1 (snowflakes) I always think of Socrates old quip, “I know more than all present because I know, that I know nothing.” (#butchered#nocitation). I feel that Walkaway has that Socratic vibe of moving from place to place, learning from talking/interacting, and being in a constant state of ‘humbleness’. It isn’t that you are or are not a snowflake, it’s that you have the self-awareness to recognize our tendency to want to ‘be the star in our own reality show’; let’s face it, that’s the human condition. Limpopo seems to embody this non-snowflake mentality, and Etcetera seems to struggle the most with this concept eventually figuring it out with the airships (he needed to float not walk). When Socrates began to have influence he was punished for pointing out this ‘state of becoming’ or ‘non-snowflakiness’ as well as his lifestyle…and so go the Walkaways.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s an interesting way of looking into Walkaway, Maverick. This really is a philosophical novel (partly), part of the tradition of sf like Frank Herbert’s _God Emperor of Dune_ or Stapledon’s novels.

      • MaverickScfi says:

        I agree, and to add Q2 & Q3, into the mix…what happens to our ‘human condition’ when we’re uploaded? All the modification and multiple instances of our ‘self’. The upload ‘valve’ solution seems great in a pinch (we saved mercenaries, sort of, maybe) but long term do we lose our humanity? Typical Doctorow optimism looks on the bright side of this possible path. Herbert had his God Emperor lock that sh!t down, no one else gets multiple instances. You get the Borg scenarios like Alpert’s Extinction. Human augmentation is a hot topic! Here’s hoping we end up in Bank’s Culture.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          How many backups and versions until our humanity becomes something else, eh?

          Question: how is Alpert’s Extinction?

          • MaverickScfi says:

            Alpert’s Extinction reminded me of Stephenson’s Reamde quite a bit (little shorter and more linear), with more of a Jason Bourne feel to some parts. Touches on some interesting topics of today like human augmentation and prosthetics, drone technology, and brain implantation/upload. Not so much of a thinker, does dabble a bit in tech development and ethics.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            Thank you very much, Maverick.

            Some futurists have argued that we can find good signals in thrillers.

      • So of course I had to look up Stapledon, which led me here in case anyone wants to read more, https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stapledon/olaf/

        …and, in addition to the generous science fiction list, A Modern Theory of Ethics, https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stapledon/olaf/ethics/index.html

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Thank you so much for catching those links, Vanessa. Stapledon is an awesome writer, but not yet in US public domain. You just unpicked international copyright law -brava!

  2. On #2, forcible brain uploading … an ethics issue. What happens to the subjects of forcible uploading? The question also leads me to imagining a conversation between Cory Doctorow and Ray Kurzweil, which in turn leads me to adding Kurzweil/Singularity links to Walkaway collections. OT but it also makes me think of drones and A.I. personal assistants.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *