Book Talk: 'Walkaway' by Cory Doctorow - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Walkaway' by Cory Doctorow

Alexander Wallace sides with the outcasts...

It wasn’t until about halfway through reading Walkaway by Cory Doctorow did I see the sheer brilliance of the cover art. It’s of a woman walking away from a house in flames, a course of action which is completely rational. Who wouldn’t try to save their own life when their surroundings are ablaze? I then thought of the common metaphor to describe living in our own twenty-first century, which falls so short of the optimistic visions of the future that the writers of the twentieth century dreamed up: the dumpster fire. That image conjures something that was already terrible and now in the process of destroying itself. The woman on the cover art seems to be doing so not in urgency or in fear, but rather in a self-assured confidence, not unlike an action hero from an explosion in a Michael Bay film. She’s not merely leaving; she’s doing it with gusto.

The book itself concerns the efforts of a group of outcasts from ‘default’ society as they try to perpetuate their communal subculture in the face of industrial states that despise their very existence, as the persistence of an alternative merely highlights their own flaws. For most of Walkaway, that industrial state is Cory Doctorow’s native Canada; the book is largely set in Toronto or rural parts of Ontario. Rest assured, within its pages America is faring no better in the bits set there, and things don’t look much happier in the rest of the world.

The characters are a reasonable cross-section of the different sorts of disaffected people that would want to ‘walk away’ from everything (hence the title). You have the alienated daughter of Toronto high society that is disgusted by the cruelty of their business, to name but one. It’s a book that, in my mind, captured a lot of the last decade’s zeitgeist as experienced by young people without established careers.

I graduated from college in May 2019 and was only able to get a three-week temporary job in December, and another one in January that was cut short by the virus. My job hunting for eight months was in vain, with long applications and a deafening silence when it came to these jobs actually responding. It is no wonder, then, that I found resonance when Doctorow referred to the dignity of being treated “like a human being and not an inconvenient surplus labor unit,” (itself not unlike a sentiment George Orwell expressed in Homage to Catalonia) and a painful vision of my own future when he referred to someone in his sixties and had never been more than a temp. The possibility of being able to simply ‘walk away’ from all this madness was a possibility that seems very tempting to me (of course, we can’t now, because of the pandemic).

Walkaway makes no bones about how difficult maintaining a para-society will be. The people who have walked away are under constant threat from the Canadian Army, which is being used as little more than Pinkertons with better equipment. It’s a recurring theme running through the text, where the powers that be simply can never accept the existence of an alternative to their way of being.

In terms of the science fictional element, the most is in the portrayal of artificial intelligence, which is quite interesting. I won’t go into much detail because that involves significant plot details, but I will assure you that those looking for an AI story will come out of this book satisfied.

Walkaway is another one of those near-future SF books that is crushing in its contemporary relevance in a way I wasn’t aware of when I first started reading it; I had simply gotten it from the local library by virtue of the name of the author. What I got was a damning indictment of the modern political environment to actually solve any of the problems ailing it. As someone who has been living its failures for the past several years in one way or another, it resonated with me tremendously. Those in the similar boat may feel the same.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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