Sci-fi’s Cory Doctorow on dystopia and why he doesn’t believe in copyrights

Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger – the co-editor of the website Boing Boing and the author of young adult novels. Doctorow is speaking and signing his new book next Friday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.
Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger – the co-editor of the website Boing Boing and the author of young adult novels. Doctorow is speaking and signing his new book next Friday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

Go to Cory Doctorow’s site and you can download his books. There’s no catch, either: Many of them you can have a copy of in the format of your choice after just a few clicks. You can change it, remix it – whatever you want – and send it back to Doctorow, who may share your altered version. As an author and a creator, he chooses not to apply the usual copyright technologies or laws – and he can explain why with remarkable specificity, sometimes citing laws and their subsections off the top of his head.

“I think the most important thing is that copyrights should be how the industry regulates its internal affairs and not that our readers should have to be experts in order to read a book,” Doctorow says. “If you have to understand copyright to be a book reader, then publishing is dead.”

Doctorow is a blogger, an activist, an author and the co-editor of On Friday, he’ll discuss his latest novel “Walkaway” at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. In this near-future sci-fi novel, he imagines a world in which ultra-rich, dynastic “zottas” control everything, there are few jobs – just endless internships – and people go into stupendous debt just to survive. This is “default” society. Yet in the wilderness and in abandoned cities, live the “walkaways.” They exist in moneyless communes where they can print anything they need or want – clothes, construction materials, medicine – and where pacifism is a way of life. “Walkaway” follows three people who do exactly that – who walk away.

We caught up with him recently to discuss the book, science fiction and the future. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

Q: In “Walkaway,” I’m curious if you meant to create a utopia or a dystopia?

A: I think the phrase you should be looking for here is “optimistic disaster novel.” I think that disasters are inevitable. What’s up for grabs is what we do about them. What (society) does when things go wrong says a lot more about whether it’s utopian or dystopian than what it does when everything is going according to plan. From an engineering perspective, that’s the test that we look at.

“Walkaway” is a story about people who believe that when things go wrong, they should turn to their neighbors and help them and get help from their neighbors. They are confounded by the elites, the super-wealthy who believe that when the lights go out, that the poors are coming to eat them. They pre-emptively strike against them.

It’s a fictionalized microcosm of a thing that happens in the world. Rebecca Solnit, who is a wonderful writer, wrote a book that is hugely influential on me and inspired me to write this that is called “A Paradise Built in Hell.” She’s a historian, and she looked at the actual lived experience of disasters. What she found was the actual people who lived through these disasters experienced them as great upwellings of civilized, generous conduct.

She points out, for example, that there is zero evidence that there were any rapes committed at the (Louisiana Superdome) after Katrina. Instead, what actually happened at the Dome during Katrina was that kids who were involved in actual criminal street gangs formed a kind of triage society that sought out the most vulnerable, the critically ill and the elderly, and made sure that they got priority access to water, food and shelter so that they could weather the disaster. If that’s what the street gangs were doing, imagine what the rest were doing.

Q: How did you create characters who are pacifistic in a believable way?

A: I’m at the MIT Media Lab as a Director’s Fellow, and one of my fellow fellows is a woman from the Albert Einstein Institute, which is an institute that studies nonviolent resistance. She talks about nonviolent resistance as a tactic and not as an ethic. When you are met with an adversary whose ability to project force vastly exceeds anything you can muster, you have to fight on a different field because you will lose if you fight on the field of meeting force with force.

If you’re practicing jujitsu, the way that you get your enemy to fall down is by getting out of their way. That’s not because you are pathologically committed to not doing harm to someone else, it’s because it’s the way to get the most of what you want with the least risk to yourself.

Q: In a lot of ways the walkaways reminded me of what is called “going off the grid,” yet they were completely connected. They were effectively live tweeting everything that happened.

A: These guys aren’t preppers, right? They’re not isolationists, they’re collectivists, but they’re nomadic collectivists. Their goal is not to get off the grid because society is wicked and we need to start over again. They’re committed to a fully automated leisure communism where they use technology to nimbly stay ahead of the forces of reaction and control, so that they can live in this way where technology and automation gives them titanic abundance, leisure and the ability to devote a life to play. They want to go and build LIDAR-equipped drones that tell them where the bones of old buildings are that can be usefully repurposed to build theme parks and amazing luxury saunas and enjoy them in a way that we can only dream of today.

Q: Sci-fi reflects the times in which it is written. Is there anything you purposefully wanted to reflect or engage with about the real world right now?

A: It’s the coordinative elements. Our political upheavals, the ones that I like and the ones that I’m not fond of, both the populist right-wing uprisings and left-wing uprisings, Black Lives Matter and Trumpism, I think they all have in common this element of it being cheaper and easier for people to find other people with ideas that they share and to coordinate their work to make those ideas real and – this is the most important part – to work with people they have strong differences with. They don’t have to worry that these strong differences will tear them apart later. Forming a group with them is so easy that the amount of time they spend getting their mutual objectives accomplished will vastly outstrip the amount of time that they’ve wasted when inevitably they have to part ways when their differences can no longer be papered over.

On the one thing, you have this increased polarization and sectarianism where the right and the left seem to be pulling apart from each other. Both within the left, which is the part I can speak to the most strongly, but also seemingly within the right – if you look at what’s happened with the Republican Party welcoming in these elements that would have been anathema to it, like white supremacists and so on – what it’s done is it’s allowed for the tents to be more inclusive. You can have a temporary arrangement with someone that is easy enough to form and it doesn’t matter that you know that it’s only going to be temporary.

We’re very choosy with who we marry, but we’re not nearly so choosy about who we might go on a date with. Occupy, for example, was able to build a coalition of people with very diverse goals who, historically, would have had a very hard time marching together. They were able to work together. One of the recurring complaints about Occupy was it didn’t have a set agenda. I think that was its strength, that the lack of a set agenda for Occupy was what allowed it to create this very big church that welcomed in people from different denominations.

Q: Would you want to live in the future you’ve created?

A: Huh. I’m not enormously happy with the present I live in, so this becomes a kind of lesser evil question, really. I think that of all the terrible ways that things could go wrong that this is one of the least bad ways that things could go wrong, because it’s full of people who are trying to make it better and who have a plausible chance of doing it. Yeah, maybe I would.


What: Cory Doctorow discusses his new novel “Walkaway”

When: 7 p.m. Friday, May 5

Where: Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill

Cost: Attendance is free but to be in the signing line you have to buy “Walkaway” ($26.99 hardcover) from Flyleaf Books

More info:; author site at