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.
One 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.