Walkaway felt like an ambitious book, not so much in the story it tells, but in the ideas it explores. It poses questions about society, self, and wealth but, in this reader’s opinion, the exploration of those ideas never uncovers acceptable answers.
One way of describing Walkaway would be an inverse Atlas Shrugged. In Ayn Rand’s story the capable few are exploited by the incapable masses and choose to leave conventional society and start their own. Cory Doctorow’s flips that with the capable masses, exploited by the incapable few, picking up and starting over elsewhere. The resulting walkaway society is something of a communist Galt’s Gulch but with “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” replaced by “From those who desire to contribute, to those who desire to consume.” The key to this functioning walkaway society is fabricators which input old goods and output new goods. If you desire a new shirt, you dump your rubbish bin into the fabricator, pick out the design you want, and it 3D prints one for you.
In a more conventional sense this is an exploration of universal basic income. What will happen if we separate someone’s ability to survive from their participation in the economy via employment? Where does that leave the rich? The poor? The powerful? The weak?
Walkaway takes that a step further and with the separation of body and self with the characters learning to scan and upload their minds to computer clusters. Doctorow does a good job discussing the question of whether or not a simulated you is actually you though his characters have varying degrees of acceptance of that. Most seem to conclude that, yes, a simulation of you is you but in a different form.
Where Walkaway fell short, and where the novel Accelerando by Charles Stross excelled, is diving into the implications of this transhuman future. In the Walkaway world the simulation of the mind allows one to continue to live after their body experiences death. Stross takes the same premise and examines what that means for the future in regards to the economy (computer simulations owning things in the real world), resources (mining in space), and space travel (when you can send virtual people rather than physical bodies).
After reading Walkaway the question that is going to be on the mind of every economist and computer scientist is, who is going to provide the computational resources to meet the spiraling demand as humanity leaves the physical realm and enters the digital one? Doctorow does not address that and I think his work suffers a bit for it. We are presented this radical vision of the future but missing the key component that gets us from here to there.
Another view of Walkaway would be as a digital nomad manifesto (notwithstanding the 4-Hour Workweek). On the Road provided many a dream of dropping out of conventional society and seeking adventure. Walkaway might be that for this digital age where one can roam the fringes of civilization yet still participate in our global discourse. All one requires is a tavern with an Internet connection and a place to lay their head.
In this case Doctorow does recognize the reality that many nomads eventually find. Wandering the world is a young person’s game. In the novel, as in life, once children enter the equation one is inclined to settle into a location and to begin accumulating rather than continue globe-trotting with all of their possessions in a single bag.
Ultimately what Walkaway is about is class struggle and the means that some will go through to maintain the status quo and others to escape the rat race. Power. Freedom. Two ideals that mean different things to different people and are as old as humanity itself. Doctorow provided some excellent fodder for the discussion. Perhaps it is a discussion without answers.