Walkaway begins with a chapter entitled “Communist Party”, then lists the 22 hipster names of protagonist Hubert, Etc, which his parents chose from the 1890 census. The party in question is an outré rave, set in an abandoned bed-making factory, where clever young pretty people have reactivated the production line in order to hand out free furniture to the less fortunate. The beer they sup is recycled urine. In the post-scarcity society of 2071, party kids are either the daughters of oligarchs (zottas) or desperate entrepreneurs trying to make a buck in the zeppelin boom but coming up with a Hindenburg.
This is the sort of book that will either thrill or irritate, depending upon your interest in precocious tech nerds, the share economy, sweaty sex and Socratic dialogue. Wise older characters are frequently asked to explain their philosophies and ideas, leading to lengthy passages of exposition. This sometimes works, resulting in interesting digressions on the division of wealth, open-source software, hacking, recycling and the uploading of consciousness into the cloud. At other times, it is so wrapped up in its own cleverness that good ideas become lost in a fug of pseudo-empowerment and fight-the-system undergrad chatter.
Having said that, novels of ideas are always welcome. The central proposition of Doctorow’s burgeoning utopia is that once the world’s wealth is owned by 0.1 per cent (with zottas conquering each other’s kingdoms like feudal lords), the remaining 99.9 per cent of citizens will finally realise they have been duped and walk away. In other words, abandon their miserable consumerist lives in the cities and go bush. Once there, this massive squatter class will build their own communities based on mutual respect and the sharing of skills, thus forging a bright future for mankind. The zottas will attempt to destroy them, but ultimately, peace, love and the ability to hack high-level security systems will prevail. Edward Snowden provides one of the cover praise quotes.
The challenge to the notion of inevitable dystopia fades as the narrative stumbles into a rote kidnap/rescue operation involving military contractors, drone strikes and daddy issues, all of which detract from Doctorow’s peacenik world-building. Despite the extended conversations discussing the merits of a hacktivist reboot of society, the story is undone by a directionless hesitancy, too reliant on jargon and mawkishness. JD
Head of Zeus, 384pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 29, 2017 as "Cory Doctorow, Walkaway". Subscribe here.