(2017) Cory Doctorow, Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, 505pp, ISBN 978-1-786-69305-1
Hubbert, Seth and Natalie are way too old to be at a Communist meeting, but in a world wrecked by climate change and in a society owned by the ultra rich, they have nowhere else to be and nothing else to do, but there is another way! Now that anyone can design and print the basic necessities of life – food, clothing, shelter – from a computer 3-D printer, there is little reason to moil with the system. So, like thousands of others in the 21st century, they simply walk away. Except it is dangerous out there in the empty lands, hiding predators, animal and human alike...But the numbers of the walkaways grows. So when one of them discovers a way to extend life – something the ultra rich have never been able to buy – it is war...
Let’s start with the cover, which has a blurb from William Gibson which seems perfectly apt as Walkaway reminded me a lot of Gibson’s 'Bridge' trilogy, in particular the last novel All Tomorrow’s Parties. The cover also features a nifty dust jacket trick showing a woman walking away from a house (her home?) and following an arrow towards…what? Well, all is revealed by removing the dust jacket, although the title offers a big clue.
This is a meaty tome, and only consists of 7 chapters and an epilogue, enough to give a reluctant reader like me a seizure, fortunately the chapters are sub-divided into sub-sections but despite that, Walkaway is not an easy read. Why not? Well, for one thing it is incredibly busy, and there are loads of tech-speak that belong to whatever sub-cultures Doctorow is a fully-paid up member of, and, of course, he has invented his own tech-speak for this book. I was reminded of that line from Amadeus (and the attempts at jazz and classical music by Frank Zappa) in that there “are too many notes”. Ideas zing off the pages and there are lots of ideas. Lots and lots. Other writers could write whole series of trilogies with the stuff that Doctorow throws away. It also, dare I say, could do with a good edit as it is rather clunky is places. Two things that budding writers are told not to do are to repeat themselves and 'show, don’t tell' – i.e. no info dumping, or paragraphs of one character telling another important plot...'stuff'! With the latter, Doctorow does this in spades with one character explaining to another at length what needs to drive the plot at that particular time.
In Walkaway, Doctorow has extrapolated many of the societal problems we are experiencing now such as climate change, over population, refugee crises, civil wars and the huge wealth and health disparities between the superrich and everyone else, and ran with them. Thanks to 3D printing and pirating and downloads, and the world of hackers and patchers, some things are free - illegal, but free. He is also very good at characterisation, thus we start with Hubert, Etc (so called because he has 19 middle names), and his friend Seth, as they gate crash a 'communist party' run by Natalie Redwater, who is one of the super-rich. After the party ends rather abruptly they retreat to Natalie’s home, or rather fortified, estate, patrolled by a small security army, like many of the homes of the 1% superrich, and decide to 'walkaway', join those others who have had enough, who populate abandoned cities, and other places. Thus they head into the wilds of Canada and met Limpopo who is even more tech savvy than they are, but one of the Walkaway has created a cloud and way to upload human consciousness and the super-rich who have everything except immortality want that secret so that they can live forever, albeit as digital beings.
Like Gibson’s Neuromancer, Walkaway is a science fiction novel, a thriller, an espionage novel, a crime novel, a romance, and at times there are some chase scenes, battle scenes and lots of sex scenes and even more swearing, but it is a tad long and drawn out, yet fascinating for what Doctorow has taken from our world and run into the not-so-distant future with. In many ways this is a prequel to his own post everything novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. We are slouching towards utopia.
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