Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway

Walkaway is an extraordinary novel.  It throws us into a possible future that explodes from the conflicts of our own era.  Doctorow has created a compelling, plausible vision of a different kind of social order.

There are some social theorists who have offered  speculations in this direction, which we might call abundant-anarchism.  David Graeber is one, and he gets a nod in the acknowledgements of Doctorow’s novel; perhaps Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism is another example of sympathetic theoretical speculations.  But I am unaware of any fiction that animates such a vision.  We can set Walkaway next to LeGuin’s The Dispossessed as a plausible and rare vision of a radically free society.

For me, the most compelling character of Walkaway is the lead antagonist, Jacob Redwater.  Redwater is the neo-liberal Iago.  His most striking feature is also the one that makes him the most believable: he has an absolute conviction that his values are final.  He is the living embodiment of “There Is No Alternative.”  And yet, Doctorow makes him a real person, believable and even, in some rare moments, sympathetic.  Redwater’s self-assurance is reflexive, and it is wrapped in a suave false openness that for him just constitutes a surface of professionalism.  Our world is full of Jacob Redwaters, and they run the international economic order.

walkawayOne important question the novel raises is the prospect of walking away.  Doctorow sees it as a resolution to conflict:  the Walkaways literally get up and go when the machinery of the old economy tries to rob or murder them.  The plausibility of this strategy in part depends upon the plausibility of super-abundance.  Will we enter a phase of economic production where it is easy to “start over,” where the means of production are so low cost as to be seemingly free for the taking?  But it also raises questions of space (social space and geographical space) and frontiers.  David Graeber has observed–in response to the question “How come there’s never been an anarchist civilization?”–that most human societies were anarchist.  But that prompts another question:  why have nearly all those anarchist civilizations that overlapped in time with industrialization and colonialism been victims of oppression and often genocide?  Presumably there was something about the two kind of civilization that made the one always able to destroy the other.  Would Doctorow’s Walkaways be hunted mercilessly?  The climax to Doctorow’s novel attempts to answer just this question:  he portrays the explosive increase in communication abilities as changing this dynamic.  We can hope that he’s right.

One thing troubles me about Doctorow’s tentative optimism.  In the world he portrays, I can only believe that hard-working techies have a home.  The heroes all code, or hack genes, or build and fly blimps.  Such people have already inherited the Earth; it seems no surprise that they are doing well in the future.  But what place will the artists or philosophers find in this abundant world of disobedient makers?  And–dare I ask?–what place will the slothful have?

Hopeful but plausible science fiction like this has become rare (although this is a good year for it, with New York 2140 also being published).  I will be excited and eager to recommend the book for the Nebula, though I suspect it won’t make the ballot.  Recent Nebula nominations have seemed to strongly favor fantasy, military SF, or space opera.

Join me for 1984 and a good cause

I’ll be speaking about 1984, and its continual relevance, at The Little Theatre, on April 4.  Come join me, and the novelist Ed Ashton, to discuss the importance of this book.  First, starting at 6:00 pm, there will be a screening of the 1984 version of 1984 (you know the one–with John Hurt and Richard Burton).  We’ll be talking afterward.  And it’s all for a good cause:  a part of the ticket sales will go to support the ACLU.

More details at:  https://thelittle.org/films/1984

“RedKing” in the 34th Annual Year’s Best SF

Very pleased that my story “RedKing” will appear in the 34th Annual Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology, edited by Gardner Dozois, and appearing summer 2017.

Here’s the TOC:

THE YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION, THIRTY-FOURTH ANNUAL COLLECTION,
Edited by
GARDNER DOZOIS

  • TERMINAL, Lavie Tidhar
  • TOURING WITH THE ALIEN, Carolyn Ives Gilman
  • PATIENCE LAKE, Matthew Claxton
  • JONAS AND THE FOX, Rich Larson
  • PRODIGAL, Gord Sellar
  • KIT: Some Assembly Required, Kathe Koja & Carter Scholz
  • VORTEX, Gregory Benford
  • ELVES OF ANTARCTICA, Paul McAuley
  • THE BABY EATERS, Ian McHugh
  • A SALVAGING OF GHOSTS, Aliette de Bodard
  • THOSE SHADOWS LAUGH, Geoff Ryman
  • RedKING, Craig DeLancey
  • THINGS WITH BEARDS, Sam J. Miller
  • FIELDWORK, Shariann Lewit
  • THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF MR. COSTELLO, David Gerrold
  • INNUMERABLE GLIMMERING LIGHTS, Rich Larson
  • FIFTY SHADES OF GRAYS, Steven Barnes
  • SIXTEEN QUESTIONS FOR KAMALA CHATTERJEE, Alastair Reynolds
  • COLD COMFORT, Pat Murphy & Paul Dohert
  • THE ART OF SPACE TRAVEL, Nina Allan
  • FLIGHT FROM THE AGES, Derek Kusken
  • MY GENERATIONS WILL PRAISE, Samantha Henderson
  • MARS ABIDES, Stephen Baxter
  • THE VISITOR FROM TAURED, Ian R. MacLeod
  • WHEN THE STONE EAGLE FLIES, Bill Johnson
  • THE VANISHING KIND, Lavie Tidhar
  • ONE SISTER, TWO SISTERS, THREE, James Patrick Kelly
  • DISPATCHES FROM THE CRADLE: THE HERMIT—FORTY-EIGHT HOURS IN THE SEA OF MASSACHUSETTS, Ken Liu
  • CHECKERBOARD PLANET, Eleanor Arnsason
  • THEY HAVE ALL ONE BREATH, Karl Bunker
  • MIKA MODEL, Paolo Bacigalupi
  • THAT GAME WE PLAYED DURING THE WAR, Carrie Vaughn
  • BECAUSE CHANGE WAS THE OCEAN AND WE LIVED BY HER MERCY, Charlie Jane Anders
  • THE ONE WHO ISN’T, Ted Kosmatka
  • THOSE BRIGHTER STARS, Mercurio R. Rivera
  • A TOWER FOR THE COMING WORLD, Maggie Clark
  • FIRSTBORN, LASTBORN, Melissa Scott
  • WOMEN’S CHRISTMAS, Ian McDonald
  • THE IRON TACTICIAN, Alastair Reynolds

Captain Fantastic, Captain Improbable

Captain-Fantastic

Captain Fantastic is the finest Hollywood film I have seen in a very long time.  One can dream of an alternative to neoliberalism, but we all know how very hard it would be to create and sustain a personal alternative.  The protagonist of the film, Ben, tries to foster a better form of life for his family, and he finds this is crushingly difficult.  But, more importantly, the film often turns the camera from Ben’s family and points it straight at us, and we recognize ourselves and loathe what we see there.

Anthropology is the study of the death of expression of the human logos:  generations of people like Boaz and Benedict and Kroeber watched and recorded as languages perished and ways of life withered into a sameness — the victory of a single, omnipotent Das Man.

Art — and perhaps most of all, science fiction — is a kind of inverted anthropology.  Works like The Dispossessed or Ecotopia or Green Mars try to imagine a future that is not the total victory of the One Advertised Existence.  There is little left but art to tell us that another world is possible.

Why do we like The Lord of the Rings?

I am leading, with an old friend, a reading group of political science students.  The first book is The Fellowship of the Ring.  (Hearing this, a neighbor asked me, what can you possibly say?  But I spied he had two different copies of The Lord of the Rings on his bookshelves.)  There is much to say, of course, but one thing struck me first.  Many people love The Lord of the Rings.  The students know far more about it than I do.  But why?  What is the appeal here?  I believe that some part of the appeal lies in the fact that Tolkien vividly portrays a world without four kinds of alienation that plague us.

tolkienhobbit-3

Economic.  There is no disconnection between those who produce and those who decide what to do with what they produce.  If you make beer in the Shires’ pub, you decide how it is distributed.  Industry where things are made but another decides how they are distributed is presented as something undertaken by the wicked.  But who would not prefer to be directly making and determining and distributing the products of their own labor?

Political.  The Shire has a Sheriff, who mostly rounds up lost sheep.  This is a world, as David Graeber has observed, without bureaucracy.  It is a world where no one is going to ask you to fill out twenty five forms in April to do you taxes.  There is no they, to tell you what to do.  Tolkien himself described this personal politics in a letter to his son, worth quoting at some length:

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to ‘King George’s council, Winston and his gang’, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy. Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. And at least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The mediævals were only too right in taking nolo efiscopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that – after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world – is that it works and has worked only when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way. The quarrelsome, conceited Greeks managed to pull it off against Xerxes; but the abominable chemists and engineers have put such a power into Xerxes’ hands, and all ant-communities, that decent folk don’t seem to have a chance. We are all trying to do the Alexander-touch – and, as history teaches, that orientalized Alexander and all his generals. The poor boob fancied (or liked people to fancy) he was the son of Dionysus, and died of drink. The Greece that was worth saving from Persia perished anyway; and became a kind of Vichy-Hellas, or Fighting-Hellas (which did not fight), talking about Hellenic honour and culture and thriving on the sale of the early equivalent of dirty postcards. But the special horror of the present world is that the whole damned thing is in one bag. There is nowhere to fly to. Even the unlucky little Samoyedes, I suspect, have tinned food and the village loudspeaker telling Stalin’s bed-time stories about Democracy and the wicked Fascists who eat babies and steal sledge-dogs. There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as ‘patriotism’, may remain a habit! But it won’t do any good, if it is not universal.  (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkein, Humphrey Carpenter (ed.); 29 November 1943)

Historical.  History is for us a random collection of facts, of enormous complexity.  History in this world is personal.  It’s not enough that Sauron and Isildur existed–they also are personally involved now with Frodo.  The past is personal.  And this is reflected in the knowledge of the wise:  they know their history in song and poetry, not in lists of unbeautiful and disconnected facts.

Ecological.  Nature literally talks to us.  Those who destroy nature — who have, like Saruman, “gears in their head,” are the wicked.  To live in harmony with other living things is possible.

All this reminds me:  literature is dangerous.  It demands that we ask:  If we like this world so much, then why aren’t we trying to make our world more like it?