Talking to Cory Doctorow necessitates a lot of footnotes.
We talk about General Frederick Funston, who famously burned down much of San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake. We talk about Doctorow’s theory on “lifeboat rules,” and the Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, who coined the phrase “the early days of a better nation.” We talk about the Presidency and BREXIT and Aaron Swartz and Chelsea Manning and how to keep the TSA out of your data. Threaded through this rambling, delightful conversation, we also talk about Doctorow’s first novel for adults in eight years, Walkaway, which Kirkus’ reviewer calls “a truly visionary techno-thriller” in a starred review.
Now the good news: in a world gripped by global distress, Cory Doctorow thinks we’re going to be all right.
The novel depicts a near-future that is “post-scarcity.” There’s enough food for everybody because of synthetic biology, but there’s no work because machines have taken all the jobs. The environment is still screwed, though, and the one percent keep raking in wealth on the backs of the bourgeoisie. In a world faced with limited choices, an upcoming generation chooses simply to walk away and living in communal settlements, merrily transforming ditch water into beer and 3D-printing their food and clothes.
The book was inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s eye-opening study A Paradise Built in Hell (2009), which examines the emergence of altruism in the wake of disaster, as well as David Graeber’s Debt (2014) and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014).
“These books made me really start to think not about how we succeed, but how we fail,” says Doctorow. “What happens when things go wrong? We tend to rely on our stories to figure out what’s going to happen. If our stories give us an availability heuristic,” or mental shortcut, “that you can’t cooperate with your neighbors, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I call it ‘weaponized narrative.’ So I started to imagine a story that was anti-weaponized, a narrative that gives us the intuition that what we see in history, which is general cooperation, is the reality. Sometimes the way to get to the truth is to make up stories about it.”
Writing about utopia is almost a counter-intuitive move during a time when dystopia seems right around the corner, but for Doctorow, writing about an organic community was a way to test its limits.
“If your utopia in which people treat each other well immediately devolves into a cannibalistic, Walking Dead-style apocalypse, it’s not much of a utopia,” he explains. “Utopia is expressed, like all other virtues of management and planning not as to how well it performs under optimal conditions but what happens when the conditions turn hostile. Your utopian society isn’t much of a society if it doesn’t have a working breakdown model, if it can’t recover gracefully, if it’s not resilient.”
The villains in Walkaway are atypical in that Doctorow wasn’t interested in a cat-stroking megalomaniac but instead the consequences of “elite panic” and humanity’s predisposition for kidding itself.
“If you ask yourself whether your neighbors are capable of killing you, you’re lacking some kind of foundational human virtue that you think you and your friends possess,” he says. “That prejudice is really toxic because it’s easy to ignore when things are going well and it’s really hard to ignore when things go badly. Given that we’re in a situation where things are going badly, this notion of elite panic has really come to the fore. The other thing that this book rails against is our human propensity for kidding ourselves that the consequences of wanting something are not our fault, especially if we’ve engineered the event to come true. The human capacity for ex-post-facto rationalization is the source of a lot of mischief in the world.”
For now, Doctorow continues working on a new adult novel, Crypto Wars, which is set in the universe of his bestselling Little Brother and Homeland YA novels. Asked about the nature of inventing possible futures, Doctorow just laughs.
“Science fiction writers are Texas marksmen—we fire the shotgun into the barn and then paint a target around the shot,” he says. “This is why self-deception needs to be countered by empiricism. We ourselves are just as prone to getting this shit wrong by accident as we are by malice. Science fiction writers who believe they are writing the future are engaged in fortune telling. Science fiction writers who understand they’re creating a language for thinking about this stuff are performing a practical service.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Monterey, California.