When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’’ To this day, especially in times of ‘‘disaster,’’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
In 2013, I published a column in Locus called ‘‘Ten Years On’’, where I reflected on the astonishing decade that had gone past since the publication of my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and ruminated on the novel I would write next:
I’ve been thinking that writing books in which people act good while not facing much existential adversity is a kind of easy optimism. Much more interesting are stories about people who behave well when they are at risk for life and limb: the person who shares with his neighbor when doing so might mean his own starvation; the person who takes in an orphan when she can hardly feed her own children. In short, the most optimistic fiction you can write is fiction where people treat each other well under conditions of crisis.
This month, that novel will be published. It’s called Walkaway, and it’s my first novel for adult readers since 2009. It garnered early praise from many of my personal heroes: Edward Snowden, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Yochai Benkler, the Harvard legal scholar whose Wealth of Networks is the best book ever written about the promise and peril of the end of scarcity.
Walkaway is a utopian disaster novel. It’s a novel about people doing right for one another under conditions of adversity. It’s a deliberate, tactical rebuttal of the science fiction stories (including my own) that resort to the easy, lazy trope of having civilization erupt into violence, rape, and chaos the minute that technology fails. Those are stories whose underlying theory of humanity is that a large number of people are just bastards, and if they thought they could get away with it, they would come over and kill you and eat you and wear your skin.
It’s a bizarre belief. There are many crimes that people could commit with impunity – spend ten minutes googling basic lock-picking and you’ll realize that there’s literally nothing stopping you from letting yourself into your neighbor’s house while they’re out except the fact that it’s a creepy thing to do (you’ll also realize that lock-makers are basically fraudsters). The thing that keeps you from walking into your neighbor’s house, making long-distance calls, wearing their underwear, and eating all the food in their fridge is the story you tell yourself about what is and isn’t normal, proportional, and moral. You might bear a grudge against your neighbor, might actively dislike them, but even so, letting yourself in their back door and filling their shoes with chocolate pudding is just not on.
When binoculars and telescopes got cheap, we already had a story about the fundamental creepiness of looking into other peoples’ windows. The illegality of doing so might provide some kind of abstract deterrent, but the statistical reality of peeping tommery is that you could almost certainly peep all the toms you wanted without ever getting caught. Laws against voyeurism are the result of the narrative, not the cause of it.
Rather, the two have a feedback cycle between them: laws that accord with the narrative strengthen it (and vice-versa); laws that are out of step with the narrative weaken it (and vice-versa). As Lenny Bruce famously observed: the law against having sex with a chicken implies that, at some point, someone decided to give it a try. That chicken law affirms our narrative that we should leave poultry be, and that narrative in turn eased the law’s passage. Meanwhile, other sexual laws – laws about things that consenting adults do – aren’t just unjust, they also legitimize the narrative about the acts’ immorality. The counter-narrative about the legitimacy and decency of things that loving people do to make each other happy makes it easier to repeal the laws. The laws’ repeal makes it easier to promote the narrative.
The future is a land of contested narratives. Standing on a corner with a camera, recording your neighbors as they pass by – or conspicuously recording them with a dictaphone on a city bus – will earn you something between filthy looks and a punch in the face. But putting a CCTV on the front of your building – or putting a ‘‘Sound recording in effect’’ sign up on the city bus – is apt to pass by without comment. We have a narrative about urban privacy that says that recording someone with fixed surveillance gadgets is fundamentally different from whipping a surveillance tool out of your pocket and pointing it them. That narrative – which is tissue-thin and awfully convenient – has transformed our cities without anyone even noticing very much.
The 2016 US federal election campaign was a war of narratives, and the winning one was about the bestial nature of our fellow humans. It was a story that played into the lazy trope of mass unrest waiting to break out, already broken out, about to break out further. It was based on demonizing whole populations – entire cities, entire ethnic groups, entire countries and regions – with the threat that they would both contribute to, and riot in, the breakdown of the social order.
This is an old narrative, the xenophobia story, and it’s what makes crises into tragedies. The world has many disasters in its future: between climate change and microbes and wars and the security/technology debt in our badly designed, widely deployed Internet of Things, we are set for plenty of challenges in the future. We can only resolve these challenges cooperatively. No one nation can sort out climate change – even the Nepalese can’t simply withdraw to their high ground while the seas rise, because they’re still sharing an atmosphere and microbes with the rest of us. If the Syrian refugee crisis has taught us anything, it’s that wars affect many nations, not just the belligerents. It’s trivially obvious that when a city fails, it will need skilled people and those of good will to put it back on its feet – engineers and doctors and childcare workers and carpenters – and that cities happen to be conveniently filled with those people, so the optimal way to get things running with a minimum of fuss and suffering isn’t to bug out, it’s to grab a shovel and start digging.
That’s what you’d do, right? I mean, when you read those pessimistic disaster novels about the rioting cannibalistic underclasses who’ll come for you when the lights go out, you’ll find that the people you’re meant to empathize with are the good ones: the ones who are picking up the pieces and starting over again. The helpers. That’s who we root for. The helpers are right here. When the lights go out, the helpers find their flashlights, clean out their freezers, and have a barbecue for the neighborhood.
That’s what makes an optimistic disaster story: it’s one in which the major challenge isn’t bad people, it’s the belief in the badness of people.
Walkaway is a weaponized counternarrative of human goodness. It’s a deliberate attempt to help us tell ourselves better stories. I hope you enjoy it.