“Is Doctorow’s fictional utopia bravely idealistic or bitterly ironic? The answer is in our own hands. A dystopian future is in no way inevitable; Walkaway reminds us that the world we choose to build is the one we’ll inhabit. Technology empowers both the powerful and the powerless, and if we want a world with more liberty and less control, we’re going to have to fight for it.”―Edward Snowden
by Adi Robertson & @thedextriarchy
“Last night’s talk was part of a tour for Doctorow’s newly released novel Walkaway, which is set in a future where a groundswell of high-tech nomad “walkaway” communities fight oligarchs to subvert the status quo and develop a form of immortality. Snowden pointed out that the book is a mirror version of Atlas Shrugged: instead of a few ubermensch bringing down a misguidedly egalitarian society by leaving, it’s about a mass movement of the disenfranchised threatening a society controlled by the vastly wealthy. Or, as Doctorow put it, “This is the novel about all the people who, when Atlas shrugged, said ‘Good riddance!'”
Walkaway imagines a future shaped by the same problems and possibilities Doctorow’s been playing with for years: the threat of ubiquitous surveillance and artificial scarcity, and the promise that almost any technology can be repurposed and turned against its creator.
While the talk did cover dystopia and apocalypse, the last part of its title wasn’t a joke: both Snowden and Doctorow expressed cautious hopefulness about changing the world for the better. “One of the central struggles that we all face is not ‘can we save the world?’” Snowden said. “But ‘can we lay down a brick, a foundation upon which other people can place their brick, and together we can build a home?’”
To that end, one of Doctorow’s core themes in Walkaway is subverting what he described as the popular “man against man against nature” pulp plot. “That story of humanity’s barbarism in moments of extremis, it doesn’t actually line up well with reality,” he said. “When you really talk to people who’ve lived through crises, the stories that spring to mind for them are stories of people rising to the occasion in spectacular ways.” But if the darker story is our go-to scenario in times of crisis, we’ll preemptively react to others with hostility, instead of working together to rebuild.
And this extends to more recent, topical conversations, like those around xenophobia and Trump. “There are two possible theories about what just happened in 2016. One is that secretly, tens of millions of people were absolute bastards waiting for an opportunity to vote for an absolute bastard,” said Doctorow. “The other is that people have complicated natures.”
If the second scenario is true, then there’s room to shift the conversation and find common ground with people you disagree with. “You’re not changing what’s in their mind, you’re changing what they do about it,” said Doctorow. “You’re changing whether when they lose their temper, they take a deep breath or punch the guy in the nose. When they feel that the system is unfair, they blame their neighbor, or they tell themselves that it can’t be their neighbor’s fault — it’s a wider problem.”