Walkaway Review: Dense but Dull

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I wanted to love Walkaway. The elevator pitch sold me – an extrapolation of current events that lead to the last dying gasps of capitalism. The emergence of an underclass no longer tied to labour, and how technology could enable us to move beyond the wealth gap. Post-scarcity. The Singularity. All sf concepts that I love to read about and see examined.

And Walkaway has ideas in spades. In fact, I think that one of the main problems is there’s simply too much going on. There are too many ideas, and too much plot happening to allow those ideas to be fully explored. In the first half of the novel, each scene seems devoted to explaining and positioning a particular technology, or way of thinking, or simple exposition and world building. And sf novels have done this to great effect – Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is full of chapters which are solely expository, and Neal Stephenson often devotes pages and pages to developing a particular concept. But here, it’s clunkily integrated around the plot, and it does a disservice to both elements.

We’re introduced to Hubert Vernon Rudolph Clayton Irving Wilson Alva Anton Jeff Harley Timothy Curtis Cleveland Cecil Ollie Edmund Eli Wiley Marvin Ellis Espinoza, whose absurdly long name was a protest move by his parents to make his name unsearchable in databases, and his friend Seth, who has dragged him along to a ‘Communist party’ in an abandoned manufacturing plant. They meet the organiser, Natalie, who is a ‘zotta’ – the term in-universe for the ultra-rich 0.1%-ers who profit while everyone drifts closer to poverty.

I need to stop for a minute because the use of terms like ‘zotta’ and ‘pwned’ really threw me off. Zotta is a terrible word. Every time I read it (and it recurs, rearing its ugly head again and again) I never lost the internal eye-roll. I don’t know what would have been wrong with something like one-percenters – possibly Doctorow wanted to try something novel. It didn’t work. And that’s quite apart from the ‘hacker culture’ terms that recur like ‘pwned’ and ‘owned’, words which feel dated now, and are presumably being used by these individuals living at least fifty years in the present. Most of the dialogue in the book reads like this, apart from in some of the Socratic-debate sequences. Which are great to read as Socratic debates, about the best way to build a post-capitalist society. But not as dialogue in a novel.

And the clunky dialogue coupled with the exposition dumps mean that the characters feel less like real people, and more like sock puppets, representing particularly ideological viewpoints, or varying levels of experience with a particular concept – “walkaway”, “uploading”, “deadheading”, ideas about ownership and the distribution of labour, reward structures. The veteran walkaway who takes the three ‘newbs’ under her wing, Limpopo, is particularly guilty of this. She’s the main source of exposition, and it makes her feel extremely flat. This is something that LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, another sf novel about post-capitalism, does extremely well – the characters have a view, but they are not solely that view. The society they inhabit is explained by the way the characters act and think – not by what they say to one another.

Which isn’t to say that the things they say aren’t interesting. There are great ideas here, particularly around technology, and I particularly appreciate the way Doctorow presents the use of technology. Technology use is intrinsically ideological, and Walkaway displays that throughout. It’s how you choose to use the technology that matters, that distinguishes the corpo-fascism of the ‘default’ world from the neo-communism of walkaway. Doctorow’s conception of AI is also fascinating – the consciousnesses that get uploaded are regulated to separate the instances of yourself that couldn’t cope with being uploaded. But too often the interesting ramifications of this are sidelined in the interest of moving the plot along.

The pace never lets up until the time skip near the end of the novel; the characters are always on the run, someone is always about to die. I would have appreciated more room for the ideas to breathe, and characters to develop. I also feel some of that room could have been reclaimed from the overt sexual interludes throughout. I understand wanting to explore the sexuality of characters and examine sex in walkaway. But it feels misplaced – without actual character building in-between, they do little to develop the characters. I encountered the longest sex scene I’ve read (outside of erotica), which was immediately followed by another critique of the welfare state and capitalism. Which I had heard before, from a different character, two hundred pages ago, and I agreed with it then.

It’s not a difficult read, apart from the cringe-worthy dialogue. But at the end of it all, I don’t think the interesting ideas that Doctorow introduces are necessarily worth wading through the text to get to. Which is a real shame, because the issues it touches on of the increasing wealth gap, the development of technology, and the paranoia of capitalists are valuable, and the kind of subject matter I love in modern sf. ButWalkaway‘s clunky prose and dull characters overshadow its potential.

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