Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow
Head of Zeus, 504 pages
Review by Joanna McLaughlin

What would happen if instead of trying to improve a corrupt society – or even just survive it – we chose to turn our backs on it altogether? This is the premise of Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, in which the main characters decide to abandon ‘default’ society, and the beliefs on which it’s built, to go in search of an alternative being built by other ‘walkaways’. While initially ignored by the established state, as increasing numbers of people join the walkaway movement, conflict arises. When a group of walkaways discover a means for people to become immortal, the situation quickly escalates.

Set in a bleak near-future where political and economic power is concentrated in the hands of a small number of privileged families, Walkaway’s ‘default’ society feels uncomfortably close to our own world at times. The majority of the population struggle through life, working exploitative, insecure jobs and squatting in unsafe accommodation, with little hope of a better life. However, despite its warnings of the devastating impact that hyper-capitalism can have on people and the environment, Walkaway is ultimately an optimistic novel; it stresses that this isn’t the only future available to us. At the heart of the walkaway movement is the belief that human value isn’t derived from lineage, wealth or even their intelligence, but that all people should be valued because they’re human beings.

As with most of Doctorow’s writings, technology features strongly in Walkaway, with 3D printing enabling the walkaways to transform the wreckage of abandoned resources into materials for their new society, creating everything from buildings to food and medicines. The novel also sees a group of talented scientists discover a way to make people live forever, by scanning and storing an online copy of their memories and consciousness. However, it’s not technology but ideology that takes centre stage, with a significant amount of the novel dedicated to exploring complex questions about what’s truly important in life and what we’re willing to do to hold onto those things.

At 504 pages the novel feels a little long, with a significant amount of time dedicated to hearing the main characters voicing different view-points about how society could and should work. Whilst some of the scenes feel a little unnecessary and slow down the plot, they never feel unrealistic. Indeed, instead of battling an ‘evil villain’ it’s refreshing that much of the conflict in the novel arises from the walkaways struggling to unite over a shared vision of their ideal society.

The early stages of the novel also feel a little inaccessible at times, and it is initially a struggle to become immersed in the story. However, by calling his main character Hubert Vernon Rudolph Clayton Irving Wilson Alva Anton Jeff Harley Timothy Curtis Cleveland Cecil Ollie Edmund Eli Wily Marvin Ellis Espinoza (or Hubert, etc. for short) it’s difficult not to think that this complexity was Doctorow’s intention and in the same way that the reader might struggle to connect with the default world, so do the characters we follow.

Despite these niggles, Walkaway is an exciting, thought-provoking read that any Cory Doctorow fan is sure to enjoy. This one certainly did!

This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 9.