Walkaway U: our online book club reads Walkaway’s middle chapters

With this post we’ll continue our reading of Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, moving on to the novel’s middle chapters.  Many things are going on, including an extended exploration of future education.

(For the reading schedule, click here.  For all posts on this reading, click here.  For more information on our book club, click over here.  To buy a copy, here’s the FTTE bookstore link.)
Walkaway cover

In this post I’ll begin with notes on how people reacted to last week’s reading, then move on to a quick plot summary (which contains spoilers) of chapters 3 (“Takeoff”) and 4 (“Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig”), followed by some reflections and discussion questions.

I’m going to put off chapter 5 (“Transitional Phase”) until next week, because 3 and 4 ended up being far larger than I expected.  3+4 are huger than 5-7 plus the epilogue, combined.

The book club reads

On Google+ Joe Cornelli was struck by the novel’s use of that “better nation” trope, observing:

Never seen the cut-up technique applied in stone before. 🙂

‘And best of all is finding a place to be/in the early days of a better civilization’.

He also linked to a Dennis Lee poetry collection.

On last week’s blog post Scott Butki commented:

I love how it’s entertaining and a fascinating view of the future even when discussing potentially dry topics such as different attempts at small economies. The main 3 characters are different enough to allow a simple conversation between them to help explain what’s happening in the future…

Looking back a little further to the announcement post, Ton Zijlstra praised the novel:

Just read Walkaway last week, and found it highly enjoyable as well as a trigger to think what of those things mentioned I could (help) create today.

The plot so far
We skip forward in time.  Our three new walkaways have become immersed in the culture and advanced along their separate paths, learning and building.  New relationships appear, like Iceweasel’s romance with Gretyl and Seth’s with Tam.  Limpopo, our earlier point of view walkaway veteran character, continues to work, teach, and advocate. Civil strife continues with various groups attacking walkaways.

A major plot development is the invention of mind uploading, where people can finally back themselves up online.  A character called, appropriately, Disjointed is the first.  This has enormous potential for cultural and social change: “It’s a race: either the walkaways release immortality to the world, or the zottas install themselves as permanent god-emperors.” (2338-2339) . This leads to many discussions about technology and ethics.

Another major plot thread is the kidnapping of Natalie/Iceweasel by her father, which becomes the ground for organizing her rescue, learning about her family, and continued discussion about the merits of default versus walkaway.

We also see a walkaway revolution starting to take place in default, with a struggle around the Ohio city of Akron.


There’s a lot of exploration of education.  Walkaway U describes an unschooling learning, where people think, grow, and practice in an ad hoc, networked, social way. There is a campus, but it seems more like a maker/living space (2013).  It also does groundbreaking research (2538).

This future WU contrasts with default higher education, especially in one example.  We learn that adjunctification has proceeded:

“That lookahead stuff the sim does? Mine. Did the work at Cornell, even got tenure! It’d been so long since they’d tenured anyone that no one could figure out how to enter it into the payroll system!” She laughed with full-throated abandon that made Iceweasel think of the sound of waterfalls.

Meanwhile, the surveillance state and associated companies have expanded their academic reach:

“Then it got tech-transfered to RAND, who licensed the patent to other spook-type organizations, Palantir and that bunch, and suddenly, I couldn’t get any funding to do more work. My grad students disappeared into top-secret Beltway jobs. I put ten and ten together and got one hundred. Everyone in the math world understands the number-one employer of mathematicians is the NSA, and once they start working on something, either you work for them on it or you don’t work. After a couple months of knocking around my lab, I went walkaway.”  (2307-2314)

Default’s higher education seems to be the site of protests and vigorous suppression, including a part time faculty strike:

Gretyl lost her breathing. She hadn’t seen a compliance bracelet, but she’d been hit by a compliance weapon, during a wildcat adjuncts’ strike at Cornell, when campus cops rolled into the quad with M.R.A.P.s, kettled everyone, and started sniping anyone they took for a leader. (5001)

Student debt not only continues in Walkaway‘s future, but has worsened:

“Mom and Dad were all over the idea of me going to uni. They’d both gotten degrees and swore it had been worth it, though they would owe money until they died, and neither one had ever held a job for more than a couple years. I once overheard them talking about how fucked it would be if I didn’t get a good job because neither of them had a pension and they’d need me to feed them once they were too old to get another job after the next layoff.” (6111)

Privatization and financialization of higher education now extends to high school (6067).

Technology: beyond the mind uploading breakthrough, we see more zeppelins (“bumblers”, presumably named for their slow speed and drifting), along with anime-style mech suits.

zeppelin_Michael Coghlan

The pain ray we saw earlier appears in a related form, the pain cuff(4988). Much of today’s tech is still in use, including mobile networks, LEDs, lasers, and missiles.  We also get this glimpse of a fascinating interface:

Gretyl was awake and hammering away, a hunkered, moonlit silhouette propped against the side of the train. Her hands danced and her whispers and grunts floated on the breeze. She wore a mask, which Seth hadn’t seen her do before. More than anyone, she seemed able to visualize virtual spaces and prod them without visual feedback. So she was doing something intense. (4089)

The references in these chapters reach out to technology and science fiction.  For example, a quiet use of the neologism “tasp” refers to a Larry Niven sf invention (2468).  I’m pretty sure the “shitblaster” is a call-out to Warren Ellis‘ “bowel distruptor” in his excellent Transmetropolitan comic series (2879).  Ditto for “global walkaway frequency” (4745), which brought this other Ellis comic to mind.  William Gibson’s Neuromancer appears, I think (5835; my books are all packed now, alas).

Sex and gender: while the walkaway world looks far more progressive than default, trans people still suffer (2997).

The default world continue to appear with strata of decline and persistent rust belt problems.  Walkaways respond, as with the struggle over Akron, beginning thusly:

Akron kicked off as she was leaving for the WU campus. Walkaways did a coordinated mass squat on the whole downtown, 85 percent of which was boarded up and underwater, the bonds based on their mortgages in escrow with the Federal Financial Markets Service in Moscow while the Gazprom meltdown played out.(3213)

Doctorow continues to explore a post-scarcity anarchism throughout.  Here’s one sample passage:

job creator… As though we need jobs! I mean, if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that I never want to have a job again. I do math because I can’t stop. Because I’ve found people who need my math to do something amazing. “If you need to pay me to do math, that’s because a) you’ve figured out how to starve me unless I do a job, and b) you want me to do boring, stupid math with no intrinsic interest. A ‘job creator’ is someone who figures out how to threaten you with starvation unless you do something you don’t want to do. (3467)


  1. How does Walkway U sound?
  2. What do you make of the walkaway world so far?  Are you sympathetic?
  3. Do you think a “covered dish person” ethos can work in our world? (3302ff)
  4. Here’s a fascinating political-technological metaphor.  What do you think of it?

Bucket brigades embodied walkaway philosophy, more emblematic than the consensus wrangle in a circle-of-chairs. Iceweasel’d participated in some default brigades, moving feedstock around for Communist parties, but never any with the gusto of walkabout brigades. Bucket brigades only ask you to work as hard as you want—rush forward to get a new load and back to pass it off, or amble between them, or vary your speed. It didn’t matter—if you went faster, it meant the people on either side of you didn’t have to walk as far, but it didn’t require them to go faster or slower. If you slowed, everyone else stayed at the same speed. Bucket brigades were a system through which everyone could do whatever they wanted—within the system—however fast you wanted to go; everything you did helped and none of it slowed down anyone else. ( 2104-2110).

On a personal note, I’m finding walkaway culture especially appealing this month.  Between moving house (a deep dive into default), exhaustion, the frustrations of making a business work, and the delight of actually doing this future of education practice, I admit to daydreaming about walkaway.  And more.

For next Monday, May 14, we’ll move on to the book’s conclusion, with chapters 5 (“Transitional Phase”), 6 (“The Next Days of a Better Nation”), 7 (“Prisoner’s Dilemma”), and the epilogue (“Even Better Nation”).

Don’t forget that on May 16 we’ll host a live Future Trends Forum conversation with Cory!

(zeppelin photo by Michael Coghlan)

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4 Responses to Walkaway U: our online book club reads Walkaway’s middle chapters

  1. 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)_/¯

  2. Scott Butki says:

    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.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good points, Scott. This feels almost like hard social science fiction in its detail and credibility.

    • Yikes, just picked this up in most recent Walkaway post — agree but reaction also came with a Galt connection. Ha! But then there’s the ascii (whatever) shruggie in my response. Maybe not so unconscious after all… even those who don’t or wouldn’t walk away are tempted at one time or another. Walking away can take many forms too. I prefer doing something else on my own terms to just dropping out

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