[Also appears in the “2017 Book List” page, but this was so good it gets its own slightly expanded top level entry]
Each of Doctorow’s novels increases in thought-provoking idea density to the point where reading requires a nearly Talmudic scholar intensity to unpack, turn over, and examine each word grouping, hunting for meaning. And it is so, so worth it. Normally I’d finish his latest offering in days, but “Walkaway” (especially on the back cover heels of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140,” which dealt with some of the same societal themes) takes the near future, magnifies through the lens of current events, collimates it via just enough social and computer science to make it frightening, and then zaps it, laser-like, into immediate term focus.
What are the existential crises of an uploaded consciousness (something teased in “Rapture of the Nerds” but central to this story)? What happens when test-heavy, fee-for-content education runs rampant? (as I was reading I was thinking “I should support Wikipedia, Curriki and the EFF to a greater extent”) What if the ultra-rich run out of ways to grow more rich? And most scary, what happens when there is immense value locked up in physical plants, raw materials, and intellectual property that isn’t being used, is in crumbling ruin, but can’t be made into a public trust simply because of variously divergent views of “ownership”?
If you don’t see the parallels to the United States in 2017, and can’t trace out the roots of the most terrifying themes in the book, then ask how and why we have and had a savings and loan bailout, a sub prime mortgage meltdown, staggering loads of student debt, teachers pushed to “test for testing” rather than teaching life-improving concepts and skills, and a housing market where $2,000/square foot in some cities is less of am impediment than simply finding supply that isn’t smoldering. And you haven’t visited Atlantic City, Detroit, or the parts of New Orleans still financially submerged from Hurricane Katrina.
“Walkaway” tells the story of those who simply reject the ultra-rich ultra-constrained social contract, write a new one, and the conflicts that result. It is, after an eight year hiatus in adult novels, well worth the wait. There are vintage Doctorow-isms: tribes, family and friends as the strong, weak and gravitational forces of personal relationships; a bit of fun-poking at names and how they convey and develop their own contexts over time (perhaps beating out the ABCD brothers in “Someone Comes to Town”); instant transmutation of noun to verb (“John Henry” as a verb) and by the last page, not necessarily a happy smiling ending but one that points to a more stable future for all involved.