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I’ve got an editorial in this month’s Wired magazine about the relationship between the science fiction stories we read and our real-world responses to disasters: Disasters Don’t Have to End in Dystopias; it’s occasioned by the upcoming publication of my “optimistic disaster novel” Walkaway (pre-order signed copies: US/UK; read excerpts: Chapter 1, Chapter 2; US/Canada tour schedule).

The stories we tell ourselves about the way that the people around us will behave in times of crisis determines how we behave when things go wrong. Decades of science fiction that advanced the nonsensical proposition that our neighbors will come and eat us as soon as the lights go out has produced a widespread idea that disasters are when you should run away, far from the people who can help you (and can need your help). With optimistic disaster stories, I’m hoping to help people understand why they should bug in, not bug out, and help get things fixed and the rubble cleared away. It’s the difference between “disaster” and “dystopia.”



Since Thomas More, utopian projects have focused on describing the perfect state and mapping the route to it. But that’s not an ideology, that’s a daydream. The most perfect society will exist in an imperfect universe, one where the second law of thermodynamics means that everything needs constant winding up and fixing and adjusting. Even if your utopia has tight-as-hell service routines, it’s at risk of being smashed by less-well-maintained hazards: passing aster­oids, feckless neighboring states, mutating pathogens. If your utopia works well in theory but degenerates into an orgy of cannibalistic violence the first time the lights go out, it is not actually a utopia.

I took inspiration from some of science fiction’s most daring utopias. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge—easily the most uplifting book in my collection—a seemingly petty squabble over zoning for an office park is a microcosm for all the challenges that go into creating and maintaining a peaceful, cooperative society. Ada Palmer’s 2016 fiction debut, Too Like the Lightning, is a utopia only a historian could have written: a multi­polar, authoritarian society where the quality of life is assured by a mix of rigid social convention, high tech federalism, and something almost like feudalism.

The great problem in Walkaway (as in those novels) isn’t the exogenous shocks but rather humanity itself. It’s the challenge of getting walkaways—the 99 percent who’ve taken their leave of society and thrive by cleverly harvesting its exhaust stream—to help one another despite the prepper instincts that whisper, “The disaster will only spare so many of its victims, so you’d better save space on any handy lifeboats, just in case you get a chance to rescue one of your own.” That whispering voice is the background hum of a society where my gain is your loss and everything I have is something you don’t—a world where material abundance is perverted by ungainly and unstable wealth distribution, so everyone has to worry about coming up short.

Disasters Don’t Have to End in Dystopias [Cory Doctorow/Wired]

Pre order Walkaway: US/UK

Read excerpts: Chapter 1, Chapter 2)

US/Canada tour schedule

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