Cory Doctorow: “There is violent revolution, but there is walking away”

Adrian Liang on July 27, 2017

Cory DoctorowCoeditor of BoingBoing and the author of several books, Cory Doctorow has developed a reputation for big thinking that often goes against common assumptions. But, as he says below, "I’m a pulp science fiction writer." And the ideas and action in Walkaway are nonstop.

Walkaway envisions a future in which the very rich have clear control over the world and the only way to break free from their paranoid grip is to go walkaway.

Or is it?

Read on for our interview with Cory Doctorow:


Amazon Book Review: Can you tell me what Walkaway is about?

Cory Doctorow: I call it an optimistic disaster novel. Part of it is a novel about what happens when abundance arrives, and the people who have always have lots—and have quite enjoyed that they had lots when everyone else didn’t have very much—start to see abundance as a bug and not a feature. It’s about the idea that we may reach a time when people are superfluous to the requirements of the wealthy and the elite. We’ll only need so many people to work the robots and so many people to stop those people from asking for higher wages. And everybody else might just be surplus to requirements…hanging around broke and looking hungrily at those jobs.

And if that happens, there are lots of options. There is violent revolution, but there is walking away. Many of the most totalitarian societies have allowed bohemians at their fringes as an escape valve, as a distraction, as a place to go and party, as a kind of set of court jesters. This bohemia, the Walkaway bohemia—the place where people go where they abandon markets, where they abandon scarcity and scarcity thinking—become the major force in the world and triggers an all-out war between the super-rich and everybody else. Though the real trigger is the super-rich have been running a kind of Manhattan Project to figure out a practical cure for death. When the scientists are involved decide they don’t want to be complicit in speciating the human race and they bring the fire of the gods to everyone else, to give the 99% the secret of eternal life, the super-rich realize they’re going to have to spend the rest of eternity with all of us, and that sets off an elite panic.

I want to say that although I talk about Walkaway in these lofty and abstract terms, I’m a pulp science fiction writer. Plotting is my thing. Walkaway is not only a novel that will make you think and reconsider your relationship to capitalism, it’s a pulp novel full of people firing rail guns at zeppelins with mechas in a blighted Mad Max wasteland full of awesome sex scenes and crazy buildings. I don’t want to lose sight of that. My reference point for this is the wonderful, brilliant Seattle writer named Octavia Butler, who is one of the giants of feminist science fiction and science fiction about race. I had heard so much about her as a political writer but I assumed that she was a heavy writer, like [the writing] was dense and it was like eating your vegetables. And then I read one of her novels, and I was like, “This is a kickass adventure story!” I had no idea.

It’s true that Walkaway is full of big, crazy ideas. But it’s a pulp novel. It’s a fun, rompish kind of read.

The dead-heading of people in Walkaway—that can be a positive intersection of technology and humanity or a negative intersection, depending on how it’s used.

Yeah, you mean suspended animation. So I wrote this novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. It was my first novel, and it was the first novel Jeff Bezos every reviewed on Amazon. And it was in part about practical, easy suspended animation. And it was full of people who were like, “This decade sucks. I’ll just take ten years out.” And people who would go like, “I’m seriously not going to stay aware and awake for seven hours on this plane. I’m going to put myself in suspended animation. They can stack me up like cord wood, put a routing code on me, bring me to my hotel room, thaw me out, and tuck me into bed.”

I often think that it would be wonderful to be able to just turn your consciousness off for a set period of time. There’s been lots of moments when I’m bored… And if you could literally turn off boredom, we would never have boredom. [But] I think that a baseline of boredom is probably useful. We do create some pretty cool things when our mind is scraping the bottom of the barrel for ways to entertain itself.

WalkawayI felt like Walkaway challenged me as far as my thinking and assumptions on capitalism and security and identity. How do you keep your own thinking fresh and critical against the undertow of mass market society?

You know, there’s this movement that’s actually not entirely out of the political right but it is a marker of the political right, this rationalist movement, which is about operationalizing the ideas of behavioral economics. So, trying to identify your own cognitive blind spots: Try to think through them, try to think past them…. I try to do it. I try to think past my biases and think, Am I deploying the availability heuristic?, and Am I engaged in confirmation bias? And I try and beat my own dumb brain at its dumb things.

Do you actively look for ideas that you don’t agree with to see if they will trigger different ways of thinking?

I do. In part, the activist work that I do is not necessarily left or right. But it means that I have to understand a framing that will show how the cause is relevant to different parties, especially with the new Congress…. Because of the long association I have with the EFF [Electronics Frontier Foundation], which is a civil liberties group—which therefore necessarily crosses these political lines, because the libertarian right and political left, they overlap in civil liberties questions—it’s meant that I’ve had to be able to carry on discussions with people that I disagree with in that way. That’s a special kind of disagreement. Those are people who agree on what the game is but are on different sides of it.

And then there’s the people who disagree about what game we’re playing. And I also try to get my head around them, so I listen, for example, to a weekly podcast called The Green Line, which is hosted by CBP [Custom and Border Protection] officers. It’s actually a call-in show, I think in Arizona. It’s basically CBP officers phoning in to talk about how much they hate migrants and how scared they are that people like me are in their country. And I try to make myself listen to that for an hour every week and try to understand where they are coming from.

That’s hard.

It is. It’s not pleasant.

But you know, I think part of the unpleasantness of listening to people who despise you and everything you stand for is that there’s an element of risk to the existence of that point of view, because they may actually victimize you personally. I’m a middle-class white dude who’s well-spoken and works with a bunch of hard-fighting civil liberties lawyers. I’m the least vulnerable of all those people [who are despised]. So if I can’t listen to things that make me feel threatened for my safety and stomach it, no one can. At least I have that privilege.

You’re a novelist, but that’s not everything you do. What’s your typical day like?

So I’m a very early riser. I get up at 5 a.m., and usually I blog until 7. And then we have breakfast as a family, and I do a little more blogging, get my kid ready for school, walk her to school, come back, finish the blogging. Get through overnight email. Do some writing on whatever book I’m working on now. So I’m writing a page a day of the third Little Brother book; it takes about half an hour. By that point I’ve written something like ten to twenty blog posts. So effectively I’ve synthesized all the news stuff that might be relevant to any of my interests and annotated it in a way that tries to express to a notional stranger what’s important about it for me. Which is kind of a mnemonic exercise, which also requires a certain amount of rigor in how you think about it. It also makes you practice simpler and clearer explanations of why it’s important. Then I do the administrative stuff, and then it will usually be EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation] stuff for a few hours. Exchanges of emails, phone calls, whatever. Sometimes a press call. A very quick lunch. Walk to the pool; swim for an hour. Go to the post box, pick up my post, come home. By that point it’s about 3 o’clock. Do another hour’s work—catch up on the email that’s come in, catch up on the blogging, probably another phone call, a little more EFF stuff. And then I pick my kid up from school. And we do whatever. She’s on the swim team, so I’ll take her to the Y and run errands while she’s in the pool—that sort of thing.

I saw somewhere that your daughter has six names.

Yes—Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow.

One of your main characters in Walkaway has 22 names, I believe.

One first name, nineteen middle names, and a surname.

Is there a connection there?

A little bit. You know, I come from a family of migrants and refugees, and they’ve always had more than one name. Everyone I’m related to has a surname and then their original surname. All my mum’s dad’s family, they went by names that weren’t their names; they were these kind of 1930s Marx Brothers names. There was a funny thing after 9/11: people started changing their names like crazy, legally. No one could figure out what was going on. It turns out there were people who had always gone by another name, but after 9/11, if your papers didn’t match your name, you were in trouble. So they had to formalize this thing that had always been really fuzzy. And it wasn’t until you had to have one or the other and they had to be crisply defined that it became an issue of significance.

People are saying, “Where are all these trans people coming from, now that we’re acknowledging it?” It may have been that in an era that what your gender was was nobody’s goddamn business, people just passed [as their gender identity]. That may have been the whole history of trans people, and it wasn’t until this kind of database society where you had a schemata, and a schemata defined what a gender could be, and you had to have one, that all of a sudden this became an issue.

One of the things that we’ve done with technology is found out where things that we assumed were crisply defined turn out to be a fuzzy spectrum or cloud of values. And there’s this engineering mind-set that says, “Well, just boil it down to values that I can represent in my database.” Engineers do like to boil things down, [but] it may be that the ambiguity is a feature and not a bug.

Ambiguity. It’s rich and wonderful. It’s how human progress occurs, by exploiting ambiguity and finding ways through and muddling along.


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