Queerying ‘Walkaway’ by Cory Doctorow and reflecting on Trans Day of Visibility, utopias, and gender euphoria

I finished reading Walkaway by Cory Doctorow at the end of 2017 and I have been reflecting on it ever since. I thought I would share some of these reflections as they relate to the GLAM Blog Club theme of happiness and also to Trans Day of Visibility. Walkaway is a utopian speculative fiction novel released in 2017. I discovered Cory Doctorow through his non-fiction work on copyright reform, online privacy and maker culture, so I have been keen to read his fiction for a while and, after listening to the cardicast in which he read an extract from it, I thought this would be a good one to start with.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the book was with all the main walkaway characters being pansexual and this being completely ‘normal’ for want of a better word. In hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was very queer given the amount of discussions I’ve had with queer friends about queer utopias or about walking away from mainstream society and starting a commune. There was also a trans character which I initially thought was great, as trans visibility in fiction is even more rare, but there was still only one trans character and I found the representation to be somewhat problematic as it seemed like her body was objectified and othered in a way that cis characters‘ bodies were not. I have read and seen representations that are much worse and while some of the characters initial responses to this trans character weren’t great, I quite liked that they mostly acknowledged this to some degree and critiqued their responses, so I guess this representation is a good start. It would be amazing to read about a utopian world where everyone is both pansexual and gender diverse and this is normal… It is a shame that even our speculative fiction struggles to think beyond binary genders or can’t seem to imagine a gender diverse future. Trans academic and activist, Riki Wilchins, has similarly commented on how sci-fi oddly adheres to strict gender norms. 

I think utopian fiction is very important in the current climate because it can help build much needed hope, and so I still recommend this book, especially after the past year in politics. It was great to see the queer utopias of my conversations at least begin to be represented in fiction. Doctorow has done some fabulous utopian worldbuilding and the book was particularly strong on philosophical, political and tech developments which appealed to my nerdy librarian side and he conveyed a pretty excellent vision and sense of hope for the future (which is perhaps not surprising given his background). I think I particularly l enjoyed the book’s critique of gamification in tech – highlighting that it tends to foster competition which can have disastrous results and advocating instead for a more collaborative culture built on trust. Although, of course, games and play can foster cooperation and collaboration too, and I am very passionate about this side of ‘gamification’. My inner librarian also loved the references Doctorow made to other books. However, I think the character development could have been stronger and this might be at least partly why I found the trans representation a bit problematic. If you’re interested in the philosophical, political and tech world aspects, I highly recommend you have a listen to the aforementioned cardicast episode.

I think the best fictional examples I have come across where gender diversity is considered normal are two Australian YA books: Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward and Ida by Alison Evans. There have also been some great Australian trans memoirs released recently that I cannot recommend highly enough: Finding Nevo by Nevo Zisin, Danger Music by Eddie Ayers, and All the beginnings and Rallying by Quinn Eades.

On trans day of visibility, I acknowledge that while increased visibility in fiction and in real life can be empowering, validating & affirming, it is something that many people sadly still respond to with discrimination, prejudice and violence as we saw during the postal survey in Australia and have seen during the bathroom bill debates in the US. I understand that not all trans people feel they can celebrate and that there is still so much work to do on visibility and beyond it. I offer my love to my trans friends who are awesome and inspire me so much. I love this idea of gender euphoria (featured in the shelfie below): “the strong feeling of happiness that trans people experience when they’re treated as their true gender” (coined by tumblr user ph4u57) and I am committed to helping change the cistem so that everyone can safely experience gender euphoria.

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