Thinking about Cory Doctorow's Walkaway

This is just off the top of my head. There is so much more to write about, but I thought, I better quickly write down what bugged me about it. Because, let's be honest, I want to but chances are I might not write that long and polished review:

I finished reading Doctorow's Utopia Walkaway two days ago and liked it but it keeps me thinking. True, that's maybe one of the best things a book can do for you, but in this case, it's also because I struggle with a couple things. There's loads of great stuff. I loved Cory's idea that the difference between Utopia and Dystopia is what happens when things go wrong. That the default state of mind or “beliefs/morals” really matter. There is a lot about that, which is great. And I like how he explores this walkaway philosophy in the first part of the book, as well as the many diverse and female characters. There are, as very often in his books, many explanations of important and interesting concepts webbed into the story as dialog. Which does make Walkaway feel a bit like a young adult novel. But don't get me wrong, I love that. There is something wonderful about this certain kind of seriousness, discovery and passion that seems to be lacking in an adult world filled with cynicism and irony. I find the tech jargon and the loads of action (I am not such a huge fan of) also gives it that feeling. The only two reasons, why it maybe could not be a great YA novel, is sex (though it shouldn't) and thoughts about aging (the same). But those two topics are also the ones that I keep chewing on.

Let's start with sex. Yes, there is lots of sex. I admire Cory for his ability to write very sweet and sincere about feelings, sex and love, but I have to say I still couldn't help consciously noticing that I was reading through a lot of lesbian love scenes written by a man. No, not bad but as a lesbian that is kind of is an interesting topic, because I am sure everybody knows, lesbian themed sex for hetero male porn consumers is quite a thing. Hard to blend that completely out while reading, especially because the lesbian love story, which holds the whole mid part together, kind of fades into the background after, one might say, the lesbian love scenes peaked. The mother theme didn't really help either, but it only got me really uncomfortable at that moment where Gretyl is described as (if I remember well) “She looked old, fat and unloved.” That is, if you haven't read the book yet, Iceweasel's or Natalie's “motherly” lover. Gretyl is at a moment where Natalie has been captured and tortured by her father for months and on top of that she's in the middle of an exploding war on her people, the walkaways, "Mama" doesn't look too hot under stress. Meanwhile Natalie after months of solitary confinement gets rescued by Nadie (young, slim, muscular), who is her former captor and brutally killed some of her friends. But Natalie, finally kind of safe, gets really horny and then those two end up having sex. Maybe Stockholm Syndrome or just understandable after such a long time of suffering and deprivation of human contact. But what I mean is, one of Natalie's (kind of the main character through out the whole book) love stories is framed as having to do with her mother and the other is with someone who is first brutally overpowering her physically and then turns sexy after rescuing her? Hm... I don't know, that seems a bit odd.

Then there's the cut and next time we hear about Natalie and Gretyl, it's years later and they have two sons. We are not as close to them emotionally as we have been before, and it makes it seem a little bit like that love story was a lead up to the sexy stuff. Especially when in the last battle Gretyl is described as (she calls it that way in her own head) having an affair with being part of something important (she's a math genius), while Natalie gets rescued again by Nadie. No, nothing sexy happens but then we are already at the end. The walkaway utopia. Which I won't lie, gave me a bit of the creeps. Natalie (after dying years ago of cancer and her mind having been uploaded as a Sim) wakes up in the real world again. Her mind in a new body. But not without, before opening her eyes, having a sexy dream about making out with Nadie in front of Gretyl. Gretyl we are told, has died years after Natalie (as an old, sad woman if I recall well) , and she is informed that they hope to be able to bring back Gretyl in a year. But at this point it doesn't really seem anymore (like it has been through out the book) that she can't wait to see her lover/wife Gretyl. She's definitely distracted by having that awesome new body and endless time.
There is also a hint of sexyness between her and her old male friend Etcetera. An attraction with which the story started out. But he is Limpopo's lover, whom she used to be also smitten with (there is a lot of crushing and smittenness in the book, which I like, cause well, life and love seems to be that way).  Which I think additionally sign posts the beginning of an utopia of love, where everybody has so much time (and a healthy young body) that jealousy becomes irrelevant. Not that the no jealousy part wouldn't be fantastic, but immortality as the ultimate abundance solving everything? 

I get it, makes sense, but I am not sure I like it. And that feeling was reinforced by aging being the main topic in the last part till the end. There was one male character, who had body problems with aging (Seth), but all that talk about Limpopo's wrinkles?  Somehow for me, that had a different ring (more like the age talk about Gretyl). He was described as feeling young and that his self perception didn't fit his aging body, which his lover, trans Tam, links to her own dysphoria. But with Limpopo it is the terrible life she had which made her look that way. Felt a bit like outside pity. Or maybe I am just allergic against all this already super abundant tajk in our times, that (not only) women's wrinkles and signs of aging are something that you surely should get rid of if you got the money?  But maybe it doesn't really matter, because either way looking old and being old was unmistakably a turn down. And right at that point (not because of the sex) I kind of wouldn't want it to be a YA novel (which I know it's not, but I am such a fan good ones, they do shape the future), because that feels so escapist and shallow. Like this is the one glorious solution to achieve ultimate freedom and happiness: immortality for all.

Doesn't that erase a lot of what seems, at least to me, to make us human? A non-perfect body, an age and with it, experience of change and all kinds of feelings and sensations. It made me sad. Not that I'm a fan of suffering and death at all, but I am pretty sure that would also turn out to be one of those frighteningly boring utopias, if you would have to live it. I mean, I can imagine a couple years of pure play, hedonism and sex might be fun. And sure I imagine that if you wanted to, you could eventually choose bodies, and who wouldn't want to experiment with that for a while? But then? Okay, eating up all the world's knowledge and solving math problems and such, which should be quick with those artificial brains, and then?
But most of all, no matter how hard I try, I just can't imagine that we could ever manage to invent something that is capable of giving us feelings as amazing as skin on skin sometimes does (or a summer wind or anything else for that matter).

So in the end what I liked most about the book (kind of in hindsight), is Dis. The first Sim or uploaded mind and her thoughts on what it means to be "living" like that. And I especially liked her suicidal tendencies. In the mid part, she figures out that killing her rebootable, non human self can make her feel again (albeit for a short momentum), which turns out to be quite addictive. I guess, by the end of the story her new body is supposed to take care of that problem too. But I am not convinced, because, really, this uploaded, immortal mind in artificial body utopia for me sadly flatlined the whole story in the end. I liked the beginning of the book about what walking away means so much better.

And is immortality really the ultimate walkaway?  Or is it maybe just getting trapped? Sure, it's being trapped in endless abundance but I can't help but think that would become pretty quickly a boring loop of feeling stuck. And how do you walk away from being software? What does walking away even mean if it doesn't take courage because you'll never die and therefore have nothing to lose? And what happens to that important state of mind and the walkaway version of a "Christian guilt trip"? Would and could that still be there? Even after a couple loops? 
But most important of all, how do you feel without being vulnerable? 
I think that it might be impossible, and if that's so, I'd much rather be vulnerable than immortal.

So, yes, go read the book, it's good and in it there is so much to think about and needs discussion. This is just what frustrated me the most about it, especially because I was so curious and waiting to read it for quite a while. I was very excited because it is a different (and these days so rare attempt) at writing an utopia. But disappointingly I am not happy with this utopia. There are other things that bug me too, and about which Julia Powels writes in Walking away from hard problems. I just want to add that in times when Burning man principles like 'radical self-reliance' inspire the super rich to prepare for apocalypse (read DOOMSDAY PREP FOR THE SUPER-RICH if you haven't yet), and a double faced Elon Mask (heavens, that's the scary guy! so much more than the kind of men that model Natalie's father -though I liked the exploration of their relation through explaining human weaknesses in the beginning) claims that it's already possible to kind of upload brains and says that this is necessary so humans have the slightest chance to COMPETE with AI and robots taking over. Something a lot of people in the tech world are scaremongering about, while they never seem to talk about what's already happening to our data selfs in an online world. And by that I mean, being almost right less and reduced to and exploited solely on our monetary value. No, I don't believe we are anywhere near for AI taking over, but I am pretty sure we are close (without even really noticing) to selling out on some of our most valuable human rights like for example: privacy. Which again, giving these rights up, right now often gets hailed as utopian solutions especially in education (so scary) by tech billionaires. Where are these people in this book? I think Julia Powels in her essay hits a very valid point in asking that.

It's true, walkaways maintain their own infrastructure but still, even if maybe possible and something we definitely need, right now that seems like a very far away utopia, while the real dystopia is rather pressing. The thought experiment of abundance is extremely important in our world of waste, where we since a long while are at a stage, where nobody would have to starve. And yet, still, so many children keep dying. But I am not sure humanity can win this speed race for turning our future in the already sense able direction of either dys- or utopia by thinking only about distributing abundance, meanwhile our digital identities (which are influencing ever more who we are in life) are seemingly enslaved by technology. The same technology that in this book's vision might free us, if we walk away and take over the task. I just don't why, the reason why we have to do it, is then not more of a topic and explored (apart from maybe in the passage about the problem with back ups). And I think the reason, should not only be about how to protect yourself because you must or are an unjustly declared criminal needing to hide from being caught, but about what rights we would need in a society that lives in the net. Which reminds me of Mark Fisher, when he writes about cynicism, self optimization and therapy, and that the burden of responsibility is now put on each of us us individually, even though we know we don't make a difference in the big game individually. Even if the walkaways solve the network problem by community, how do they deal with privacy? I think that would have been a great thing to explore, especially in contrast to the walkaway onsen culture. (I am such a fan of sauna, and as a German, often amazed that nakedness is such a big deal in for example American culture - there is this great essay about why Europeans and Americans have trouble understanding each other in the discussion about global privacy and data protection laws, because of different cultural values about exactly this...can't find it, anybody remember?).

This way, only talking all the time about encryption and other technical stuff (I don't quite understand) it seems, at least to me, a bit like a phantasy of maybe (sorry if I say so, but it jumps my mind) young male all mightiness? If we just get the encryption right, and are and act smarter than the others, all of this won't be a problem? Also, there don't seem to be any people (apart from Natalie's dad, who doesn't need to because he has money to pay for it) who aren't tech savvy geniuses. I for example, wish I was, but I am not. I read quite a lot about all this technical stuff, I find it interesting and know about it. But yes, I am still one of those people, who don't encrypt and fights with passwords and all this never ending security stuff. I hate it, and am quite happy if I can just work with my machine and I get it to do what I want. I seem to never have the time for the extra effort that would be needed to keep security all up. Maybe I also don't want to have to constantly fight for my privacy? I don't find that at all exciting and adventurous. It's maybe stubbornly simple as that.

So, these are my thoughts, all unpolished and just blurted out. If you want to read more and what other's thought about it, there are 10 essays about it on Crooked Timber.