An optimistic disaster novel

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Author, blogger and activist Cory Doctorow described himself as a “pulp science-fiction writer” while in Bellingham for his latest book tour.

Before turning to writing full time in 2006, Doctorow worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international digital rights group that provides guidance to governments and courts on issues regarding Internet civil liberties. The EFF has been successful in influencing legislation relating to encryption and email privacy.

All this is to say, I trust Doctorow’s speculative imagining of how new technologies and government oversight could play out in the future, and I suggest you give this “pulp science-fiction writer” more than pulp respect. Woven through his new book, Walkaway, are solid references to some of the most important issues facing how humans interact with technology today.

In a near-future setting, advancements to existing technologies such as 3D printing, as well as methods that use resources more efficiently, develop a post-scarcity economy. This means that minimal human labor is needed to produce goods in abundance. When all basic human needs are met at almost no cost, the author asks, what does this mean for a class system of haves and have-nots? Response to ownership and control of goods can be different in a post-scarcity economy. As the author suggests, there is no need to fight back when something is taken from you. Walk away.

Doctorow’s writing appeals to anyone who has had that uneasy feeling in the gut of being tracked by a smart phone or social media account. He gained a large following in the Young Adult market with Little Brother (2008) and more recently with his graphic novel, In Real Life (2014). His writing style is both accessible and chock-full of ultra-jargon with more references than a Wikipedia article. 

I felt simultaneously fully engaged and a bit dumb when it came to Walkaway. As always, Doctorow is able to remain accessible to both general and content-specific audiences. Emblematic of this was his choice to appear at the New York Public Library in May, interviewed by Edward Snowden via Skype.

Described as an ‘”optimistic disaster novel” by podcaster Marc Sollinger, Walkaway imagines a dystopian future resulting from technology being used by the super-rich to surveil and control people in order to serve their own interests. To many readers, this will be a familiar theme that has had a popular resurgence, driving George Orwell’s 1984 to bestseller status earlier this year.

Doctorow mixes his expert knowledge of issues involving abusive threats to new technologies and online civil liberties with a writing style that attracts readers across generations and genres. What results is a page-turner that explores a revolutionary response to the bourgeois elite. Walk away.

Michael Cox is the Deputy Director of the Whatcom County Library System.

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