Monday, July 10, 2017

Walkaway into Utopia

In these times, it's good to read fiction that leans toward utopia. Toward that end, I just started Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. I know nothing about it, except it was the subject of this article called Why read a utopian novel in 2017? (I haven't read that piece yet because I'm afraid of spoilers, so I can't say whether it contains any or not.)

I also recently read Walkaway by Cory Doctorow, who is one of science fiction's most reliable utopia-seekers. As with all of his earlier books, I highly recommend it. It's full of interesting ideas about our possible future, extrapolating not just climate and technological change but also wealth inequality.

"Walkaways" are people who have left mainstream culture (called "default") to create settlements in waste areas, based on the ideals of a true sharing economy. As one character describes it early in the book,
"It doesn't work at all in theory. In theory, we're selfish assholes who want more than our neighbors, can't be happy with a lot if someone else has a lot more. In theory, someone will walk into this place when no one's around and take everything. In theory, it's bullshit. This stuff only works in practice. In theory, it's a mess" (p. 51).
Which pretty much sums up Doctorow's view of human nature and society. And also this:
"The important thing is to convince people to make and share useful things. Fighting with greedy douches who don't share doesn't do that. Making more, living under conditions of abundances, that does it" (p. 92).
I won't go into the plot and action, but instead will just share a couple more quotes. Almost everything is dialog in this book, as with the above quotes:
"A 'job creator' is someone who figures out how to threaten you with starvation unless you do something you don't want to do" (p. 156).

"The amount of stuff we consume to survive, it's crazy. End-timers used to project our consumption levels forward, multiplying our population by our needed resources, and get to this point where we'd run out of planet in a generation and there'd be famine and war.
"That kind of linear projection is the kind of thinking that gets people into trouble when they think about the future. It's like thinking, 'well, my kid is learning ten new things every week, so by the time she's sixty, she'll be smarter than any human in history.' There are lots of curves that start looking like they go up and to the right, forever, but turn into bell curves, or inverted U's, or S-curves, or the fabled hockey-stick that gets steeper and steeper until it goes straight vertical. Any assumption that we're going to end up like now, but moreso, is so insufficiently weird it's the only thing you can be sure won't happen in the future" (p. 191).
In a conversation between one of the walkaways and one of the mega-rich (named Jacob):
"Jacob, I know there will always be people like you."
"Rich people."
"People who think other people are like them. People who think you either take or get took. We'll never be rid of that. It's a primal fear, toddler selfishness. The question is whether people like you will get to define the default. Whether you can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy, doing for all of us before we do to you, meaning we're all chumps if we're not trying to do to you sooner. That default was easier to maintain when we didn't have enough. When we didn't have data. When we couldn't all talk to each other."
"Okay." No hint of overt sarcasm, all the more sarcastic for it.
"We're not making a world without greed, Jacob. We're making a world where greed is a perversion. Where grabbing everything for yourself instead of sharing is like smearing yourself with shit: gross. Wrong. Our winning doesn't mean you don't get to be greedy. It means people will be ashamed for you, will pity you and want to distance themselves from you. You can be as greedy as you want, but no one will admire you for it" (p. 375).
As you can see, Doctorow's characters run to the didactic side of things, but (as I've said before) I have a high tolerance for that, at least when it supports my world view and doesn't seem like it's the kind of thing that gets said enough.

Walkaway will stick with me as I grapple with how to say what I want for our society, rather than just reacting to all of the things I don't want.

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