Cory Doctorow’s latest novel dropped (from a balloon presumably) back in April and, unlike much of Doctorow’s canon, it presents science fiction for the adult market. Walkaway provides a forum for discourse on the crossroads of political progressivism and ever-shifting technology, shrouded in a novel to attract readers, much like a gift wrapped in newspaper comics instead of real wrapping paper. The debate allows for fascinating conversation, but it infringes on the story occurring in the novel itself.
In a world with a unfathomably unequal distribution of wealth, a young woman from the elite caste of North American society abandons the fortune provided by her family to join a kind of open-source DIY counterculture occurring outside the societal norms, known as the Walkaways. She dubs herself Iceweasel, tags along with two bros-by-circumstance named Etcetera and Seth, meets a diverse cast in every sense of the word, and their social experiment becomes a revolution. While Walkaway scientists invent the Singularity, Iceweasel falls in love with a brilliant mathematician named Gretyl. Iceweasel’s father kidnaps her, but Gretyl and those Walkaways who cheated death through resurrection as computer programs rescue her. As the Walkaways become immune to immortality, the oppressive regime which they left crumbles.
Walkaway culture makes for really cool reading because it begins with modern science. 3-D printing provides our heroes with everything they need. DIY enthusiasts build drones, zeppelins, and mecha from scratch. Scientific breakthroughs travel across the globe at a dizzying pace thanks to file sharing and open source technology. It boldly imagines a world without the need for government. The Walkaways accept all except the greedy and the oppressive. It calls to mind Robert A. Heinlein’s novels, but pressed by the left-wing instead of the right.
Much like a classic Heinlein novel, though, the glorious speculation leaves little room for a compelling villain. Iceweasel’s father, the main antagonist, drifts in and out of relevance to the plot. Furthermore, his most unlikable actions occur in exposition. The Walkaways struggle against a concept more than a character. While the novel provides a Rolodex full of diverse characters with names either as outlandish Limpopo, Kerspledeb, or as simple as Jimmy. However, it becomes difficult to extinguish one from the others in dialogue. Most of the dialogue revolves around the Walkaways arguing about the ethics and consequences of the “Better Nation” they’re building. It stretches disbelief sometimes: during a tender moment between Iceweasel and Gretyl; when Iceweasel flirts with Etcetera; while a doctor tends Jimmy’s frostbite.
However flat the characters may come across, the language of this novel amazes, but not a poetic level. The quote at the bottom of this post comes from the first page of the first chapter — and the language never really gets prettier or more whimsical. No, Walkaway speaks the language of the future it lives in. It invents and supports its own jargon and slang, leaving the reader to tape together shredded conversations with context. Unfortunately, the strangeness of the language does not always lend itself to the content. A section of speculation descends at a baffling rate into two characters making love. And it happens a lot. At first, it’s all very Heinlein, but by the end of the novel Iceweasel seems to have a libido that rivals Captain Kirk’s. It begins as a mere byproduct of Walkaway culture, but becomes tedious far too fast.
Whatever other images it conjures up, Walkaway more than anything recalls the classic science fiction canon. It’s hard in the genre since with an enthusiasm for science coded into the novel’s core. Action interrupts at a satisfactory rate and the cultural battles of the future play out in the background, but Concept marches on and the story follows after. Walkaway, like Doctorow’s other novels, emphasizes the first word of the genre so much that Asimov and the del Reys probably sat up in their graves to salute. William Gibson gets a shout-out in the acknowledgments and his name appears on the dust jacket, so it nearly has “cyper-punk” written all over it. The cover art, it’s worth mentioning, is beautifully minimalist.
So, come for the pretty orange jacket – or, let’s face it, the names on it – but stay for the science.
Three out of five stars. Recommend to diehards. For me, it gives just too much space to the science, and not enough to the character.
Favorite Quote: “The beer was where the most insouciant adolescents gathered, merry and weird as tropical fish.”