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Walkaway: A Novel

Linked by Paul Ciano on July 2, 2017

This all can’t last. Even if it can, it shouldn’t.

Look, Etcetera, at all this. On paper, this place is useless, the stuff coming off that line has to be destroyed. It’s a trademark violation; even though it came off an official Muji line, using Muji’s feedstock, it doesn’t have Muji’s license, so that configuration of cellulose and glue is a crime. That’s so manifestly fucked up and shit that anyone who pays attention to it is playing the wrong game and doesn’t deserve consideration. Anyone who says the world is a better place with this building left to rot—”

“I don’t think that’s the argument,” Hubert, Etc said. He’d once had this kind of discussion a lot. He wasn’t young and avant-garde, but he understood this. “It’s that telling people what they can do with their stuff produces worse outcomes than letting them do stupid things and letting the market sort out the good ideas from—”

“You think anyone believes that anymore? You know why people who need furniture don’t just break down the door of this place? It’s not market orthodoxy.”

“Of course not. It’s fear.”

“They’re right to be afraid. This world, if you aren’t a success, you’re a failure. If you’re not on top, you’re on the bottom. If you’re in between, you’re hanging on by your fingernails, hoping you can get a better grip before your strength gives out. Everyone holding on is too scared to let go. Everyone on the bottom is too worn down to try. The people on the top? They’re the ones who depend on things staying the way they are.”

End of the day, anything that made you discount objective reality and assign a premium to some kind of internal mental state was going to be both pro-survival and pro– status-quo.

People like my dad assume that because they’re smart about being evil bastards, they’re smart about everything—”

“And because they’re smart at everything,” Seth said, “that makes it okay for them to be evil bastards?”

“Exactly,” she said. “So people like my dad are good at figuring out how to take your company with its ‘smart people’ and get it declared illegal, poach its best ideas, or just buy it and leverage it and financialize it until it doesn’t make anything except for exotic derivatives and tax credits. And the thing is, that’s not good enough for him! He wants to be the one percent of the one percent of the one percent because of his inherent virtue, not because the system is rigged. His whole identity rests on the idea that the system is legit and that he earned his position into it fair and square and everyone else is a whiner.”

“Haven’t you figured it out? Giving money away doesn’t solve anything. Asking the zottarich to redeem themselves by giving money away acknowledges that they deserve it all, should be in charge of deciding where it goes. It’s pretending that you can get rich without being a bandit. Letting them decide what gets funded declares the planet to be a giant corporation that the major shareholders get to direct. It says that government is just middle-management, hired or fired on the whim of the directors.”

So long as you keep on pretending that money is anything but a consensus hallucination induced by the ruling elite to convince you to let them hoard the best stuff, you’re never going to make a difference. Steve, the problem isn’t that people spend their money the wrong way, or that the wrong people have money. The problem is money. Money only works if there isn’t enough to go around— if you’re convinced scarce things are fairly allocated— but it’s the same circular meritocratic argument that Etcetera annihilated for my dad: markets are the fairest way to figure out who should get what, and the markets have produced the current terrible allocation, therefore the current terrible allocation is the best solution to a hard problem.”

“Commons. Common land that belongs to no one. Villages had commons where anyone could bring their livestock for a day’s grazing. The tragedy part is that if the land isn’t anyone’s, then someone will come along and let their sheep eat until there’s nothing but mud. Everyone knows that that bastard is on the way, so they might as well be that bastard. Better that sheep belonging to a nice guy like you should fill their bellies than the grass going to some selfish dickhead’s sheep.”

“Sounds like bullshit to me.”

“Oh, it is,” Hubert, Etc said. The thing was moving in his guts, setting his balls and face tingling. “It’s more than mere bullshit. It’s searing, evil, world-changing bullshit. The solution to the tragedy of the commons isn’t to get a cop to make sure sociopaths aren’t overgrazing the land, or shunning anyone who does it, turning him into a pariah. The solution is to let a robber-baron own the land that used to be everyone’s, because once he’s running it for profit, he’ll take exquisite care to generate profit forever.”

“That’s the tragedy of the commons? A fairy tale about giving public assets to rich people to run as personal empires because that way they’ll make sure they’re better managed than they would be if we just made up some rules? God, my dad must love that story.”

“It’s the origin story of people like your dad,” Hubert, Etc said. “It’s obvious bullshit for anyone whose sweet deal doesn’t depend on it not being obvious.”

Hubert, Etc had assumed that the place was a dump because Natalie was a rich slob who didn’t know how good she had it, but he understood that it was a calculated gesture of contempt. This wasn’t her home, it was a perch.

Natalie caught his eye. Her face shone. She was beautiful. She had zits, a sprinkle of freckles, the sclerae of her eyes were pink and her lids were red-rimmed. She was brimming with life, sorrow, and whatever he’d felt when he realized that the whispered conversations about money and jobs that all the grown-ups had all the time were the outward reflection of deep, unending terror. A fear that gnawed at every grown person. A primordial terror of the tiger outside the cave.

“Is there? Is there really abundance? If the whole world went walkaway tomorrow would there be enough?”

“By definition,” she said. “Because enough is whatever you make it. Maybe you want to have thirty kids. ‘Enough’ for you is more than ‘enough’ for me. Maybe you want to get your calories in a very specific way. Maybe you want to live in a very specific place where a lot of other people want to live. Depending on how you look at it, there’ll never be enough, or there’ll always be plenty.”

“I’m sorry if it’s boring. I know the theory, but it seems like it just couldn’t work.”

“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.”

With this global audience kibitzing and sniping, Limpopo tore Jackstraw a comprehensive new asshole. She called him on every crumb of bullshit, found crashed projects where gamification had run wild, so financialized that every incentive distorted into titanic frauds that literally left structures in ruins, rotten to the mortar. They were existence proof of the terribleness of his cherished ideas. She pointed out that getting humans to “do the right thing” by incentivizing them to vanquish one another was stupid. She found videos of Skinner-trained pigeons who’d been taught to play piano through food-pellet training and pointed out that everyone who liked this envisioned himself as the experimenter— not the pigeon.

There was a lot Jackstraw lacked the humility to understand. He was one of those people— almost all of them young men, though not every young man— who was so smart that he couldn’t figure out how stupid he was.

Immortality. It’s one thing to imagine a life of working to enrich some hereditary global power broker when you know you got eighty years on the planet, and so does he. Doesn’t matter how rich a fucker is, how many livers he buys on the black market, all it’s going to buy him is ten or twenty years. But the thought of making those greedy assholes into godlike immortals, bifurcating the human race into infinite Olympian masters and mayflies, so they not only get a better life than you could ever dream of, but they get it forever…”

She sighed. “They’re scared. They keep raising salaries, doesn’t matter. Offering benefits, doesn’t matter. Stock, doesn’t matter. A friend swears some zotta was trying to marry him into the family, just to keep him from defecting. These fuckers are willing to sell their kids for immortality. No matter what we do, they’ll eventually find enough lab-coats to deliver it. Science may be resistant to power, but it’s not immune. It’s a race: either the walkaways release immortality to the world, or the zottas install themselves as permanent god-emperors.”

In love, there is always one who kisses and one who offers the cheek.

“You know that they’re just psychos, right? Not geniuses. They’ve got no special talent for making the world perfect, or figuring out the future. They’re just good at game-rigging. Con artists.” She thought about her dad, school friends, their pretense to noblesse oblige and refinement. How they’d herd-mentality into some fad but pretend it was a newly discovered, ageless universal truth— not product cooked up by one of their own to sell to the rest. That was the amazing thing: they were in the business of making people feel envy and desperation over material things and exclusive experiences, but were just as susceptible to envy and desperation.

“The reason they’re so good at making us desperate and selling us shit isn’t that they’re too smart to get conned. It’s because they’re extra-susceptible. They understand how to make us turn on one another in envy and terror because they’re drowning in envy and terror of each other. My dad knows the guy in the next yacht is a bastard who’d slit his throat and steal his empire because my dad is a bastard who’d slit that guy’s throat and steal his empire.

There’s more people than ever who don’t have any love for the way things are. Every one of them would happily jettison everything they think of as normal for the chance to do something weird that might be better.”

They fed her by dumbwaiter, her favorite girlhood foods. It was worse than slop or moldy bread. The dumbwaiters ran through the house, a way to fulfill desire without the bothersome politesse of dealing with human servants. She and Cordelia called it Redwater Prime, after the Amazon service, because they knew somewhere in the chain were people earning nowhere near enough to buy the things they dispatched.

“Your problem is you think ‘useless’ and ‘useful’ are properties of people instead of things people do.

It was naïve— thinking default could peacefully coexist with anything else. How could it? If the excuse for putting a clutch of rich assholes in charge of the world was that without them we’d starve, how could they allow people to live without their stern but loving leadership?

There are always bosses— if you don’t know who the boss is, you can’t question her leadership. A system of secret bosses is a system without accountability or consent. It’s a manipulocracy.”

Even when she’d been alive, she’d been willing to break those eggs to make her omelet. As a dead person running on servers around the world, including several hostile to her and everything she believed in, she couldn’t work up a mouthful of virtual spit in sympathy for people who felt sad that Daddy was exposed as a war criminal.

“Parenting,” Iceweasel pronounced, “is the art of getting out of the way of your kids’ development.”

She’d known zottas at Cornell, patrons of her lab. She’d had to do dinners with them, fund-raisers, spent hundreds of hours engaged in high-stakes small talk, under her department head’s watchful eye. They weren’t unpleasant to talk to— many were witty conversationalists. But there was something … off about them. It wasn’t until she’d had her crisis of conscience and walked away from Cornell that she’d been able to name it: they had no impostor syndrome. There wasn’t a hint of doubt that every privilege they enjoyed was deserved. The world was correctly stacked. The important people were at the top. The unimportant were at the bottom.

He was overcome by some emotion, or a very good actor. Or both, she reminded herself. The zottas she knew were good at compartmentalizing, sociopath style, understanding other peoples’ emotions well enough to manipulate them, without experiencing actual empathy.

The external speakers clicked on. A voice spoke: “Gordy, this is Tracey. Your sister Tracey, Gordy. I know we haven’t spoken since I walked away, but I want you to know that I love you. I’m safe and happy. I think about you every day. You have a niece now, we called her Eva, for Mom. The way we live here is better than I ever thought. People are nice to each other, Gordy, the way it was when we were kids. I trust my neighbors. They look out for me. I look out for them. We’re not terrorists, Gordy. We’re people default had no use for. We’ve found a use for each other. Gordy, you don’t have to do this. There are other ways to live. I love you, Gordy.” Another voice, a baby, crying. “That’s Eva, Gordy. She loves you, too. She wants to see her uncle.”

The feeds zoomed in on one of the front-liners, a man, whose shoulders shook. This had to be Gordy. The crowd had identified him through gait analysis, doxxed him, walked his social graph, found a hit in a walkaway town in Wyoming, gotten Tracey out of bed, recorded the message.

The silence stretched. The private cop beside Gordy put a tentative hand on his shoulder. Gordy shook it off violently, shoving him away.

The moment stretched. Then Gordy shucked his gauntlets with a flick of his wrists, sending them to clatter in the road. His bare fingers worked the catches of his visor, until it yawned open. His face was an indistinct moving blur, brown with camera-corrected streaks of white where his teeth and eyes were. He took his helmet off, shucked his weapons, let them fall around his feet.

The cops around him stared, body language telegraphing the open mouths behind their visors. He walked off, orthogonal to the jails and the cops’ lines, up 15 toward Ottawa, toward the dairies and dells of eastern Ontario.

He walked away.

Paul Ciano

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