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The Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow: Interview Part One

Love, blogs, library socialism, the October Revolution, and being a Canadian in America.

One of my favorite books of 2023 is Cory Doctorow’s The Lost Cause. The title alone, connecting contemporary Trumpist climate denial to the mythologized backlash against post-Civil War Reconstruction that bolstered the Jim Crow era, was sufficient to hook me. And I wasn’t disappointed, rapidly consuming a fast-paced, intelligent, and fun novel rooted in the hardest questions of today’s climate politics.

Cory Doctorow's The Lost Cause

The book takes place in a near-future Burbank, California, years after a transformative president shepherded in the Green New Deal on behalf of generation of citizens working to build a thriving, post-fossil-fuel society that can survive the onslaught of climate disaster. MAGA holdovers, empowered by a reactionary conservative president, are fighting back against the younger generation, which includes the first-person protagonist Brooks Palazzo. As the book opens, he’s about to graduate from high school and in conflict with his MAGA grandfather, the only family he has left.

Written in Doctorow’s informal, idea-hopping style, The Lost Cause is one of the few books about climate change that I’ve read—fiction or otherwise—that understands global warming as a problem of politics, and that sees politics as something worth understanding. So, a worldview that resonates deeply with that of Hill Heat.

In my interview with Doctorow, which took place on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 2024, we talked about the many threads interwoven in The Lost Cause. It’s a far-ranging and deep conversation. I hope you will enjoy it as the transcript unfolds this week in this and ensuing dispatches.

In Part One of the interview, we discuss love, blogs, library socialism, the October Revolution, Canadian far-right politics, and being a Canadian in America.

CORY DOCTOROW: Hey, it’s Cory.

HILL HEAT: Hey, Cory, this is Brad Johnson.


HH: I first learned about you through your work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the iconic blog Boing Boing, but I also enjoy reading your science fiction. I loved your book Walkaway, and want to add a thank you because that’s what got me to read Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. And so today I’m excited to talk with you about The Lost Cause. I wanted to set the stage with my favorite passage about love from Martin Luther King, which I think is apt for this book:

“Power without love is reckless and abusive. And love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. And justice, at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

DOCTOROW: A beautiful quote. That King, he could sure turn a phrase.

HH: Well, speaking of people that can turn a phrase, I want to get right into The Lost Cause. As I said, I really appreciated Walkaway, how you grappled with the reality of climate change and what it means for people realistically, with space for hope and joy. And I’m excited that with The Lost Cause you really get into the question of practical politics. I’m interested how you got to this book.

DOCTOROW: My method for writing is to have a blog, where I write down everything that seems even remotely significant, and explain why it seems important. And that is a powerful mnemonic enterprise. It means that the details of many millions or tens of thousands, at least, of things that have seemed important to me are floating around in a supersaturated solution of fragmentary story ideas, and also captured in a giant database where that database gets annotated by other people. Because people come along and say, “Hey, you’re stupid, that’s wrong.” So it gets improved, and people send me suggestions. And so between the searchable database and this squishy database between my ears, stories just nucleate and crystallize and fall out of them. And sometimes it’s speeches, and sometimes it’s stories, it’s sometimes essays, or novels or whatever. So that’s the approximate origin story.

Library Socialism

DOCTOROW: For many years, I’ve been thinking about the paradox of degrowth and materialism. I think that “degrowth” is a really bad slogan, to be honest. I think that’s a bad slogan because it sounds like a hairshirt. I think that there is another version of sustainable living, where we reduce the material, labor, and energy consumption, but without living a life of privation—in fact, living a life that is in many ways more materially abundant than the one that we have now.

This is something I feint at in Walkaway and try to get more into detail with in The Lost Cause. This is obviously something that’s going to become very important in the years to come, because a lot of our access to the material world is gonna go offline, either periodically or permanently, as we see more extreme weather events. There’s gonna be parts of the material world we can’t access. We thought the supply chain interruptions from COVID were bad, but wildfire season raging in five major places at once, all of which are critical sources of a scarce resource that is part of some important piece of our supply chain, that’s going to be very hard to deal with.

Thinking about how we’re going to manage in a future where we are living through that reality is something that I’ve spent a lot of time on. And I hit on this idea that—I don’t know if I call it this, or if the people from the podcast where they talked about it with call it this, but this idea of library socialism, where you have, instead of issuing every person in every neighborhood with one regulation, really shitty drill that sits in a drawer, and that you use to make the three holes in your walls that you on average need to make every year—you just have a stochastic circulating cloud of incredibly good drills that are smart enough to gather telemetry so that the next time a drill is needed, it’s even better. The sort of thing that you would buy if you had an unlimited budget for a drill. And that you and your neighbors all can lay hands on at any time. And rather than having a drawer with a terrible drill that you can’t use as a drawer for something else, you’ve now got something better. You’ve got both a better drill and a drawer back. And multiply that by every other consumer durable in your home that you only use periodically—and my home is full of them—and you’ve got a world that’s actually way better, that still has a much lower energy bill.

And so: imagining how that would play out in a world in which the politics have really changed. And then simultaneously—because science fiction is a game of, or novel-writing more broadly, it’s a game of complication, where it’s like, what if? And what if this else also?—imagining that political tendency that brings us library socialism has to make the often fatal transition from being challengers to the status quo—what in security research we call the attackers of the red team, to being the defenders of the status quo or the blue team. And those are completely different postures. And so the kind of political movement that can be insurgent is often really bad at administering power. Because all of the characteristics that make you a good insurgent are really distinct from the characteristics that make you a good incumbent.

The October Revolution

HH: I saw in another interview that one of the books that you drew from was China Miéville’s October, about the lead up to the Russian Revolution.

DOCTOROW: Yeah, China’s a pal and that book is really good. One of the scenes from that book that really struck me, or one of the elements of that book that really struck me is there was this tactical debate within the revolutionary coalition in pre-Soviet Russia. And all the responsible grown ups were like, “The Tsar is too powerful. We can’t challenge his authority. Haven’t you seen that whenever there is an uprising significant the Tsar has 1000 troops to lock it down? How can we hope to take on Peter?”

And it turns out, the reason the tsar was doing this is because he knew that his power was crumbling, and he couldn’t afford to see. And so the tsar was in fact about to lose all of his power, but a lot of people thought it was never stronger.

The lesson of this is that it’s it’s very hard to tell a priori whether your enemy is coming on so strong because they’re terrified that you’ll find out that they’re weak, or because they have so much resources that they don’t have to husband them, and they can send 1000 Cossacks to quell the peasant uprising.

And there’s this debate right now about the far right. Is the far right moving towards such aggressive anti-democratic postures because they’re so strong that they don’t have to give a shit anymore, or because they’re so weak that they know they can’t win by democratic means? And I’ve heard political scientists convincingly argue both.

HH: Yeah. You only actually know the answer...

DOCTOROW: ... after the fact.  And then the fact that they’re so weak that they can only win by anti-democratic means doesn’t mean they won’t win. That’s the other thing. Saying that they represent a tiny minority doesn’t mean that they’re not a danger.

I just yesterday heard a good interview on the Canadaland podcast about Canadian far-right politics, which are surging like crazy. And one of the people involved is a former conservative powerbroker who was the first openly trans politician within the Conservative Party. And she was defenestrated, and reconsidered what was going on. She had all these really interesting insights about the way that the politics work. And she said, “Look, the number of people, at the provincial level anyway, the number of people who are voting for the leadership of the Conservative Party is so small, that you can go to a good-size nightclub, sign up everyone there as a party member and change the leadership.”

Hannah Hodson

Hannah Hodson, former Canadian Conservative Party member

DOCTOROW: So when we think about the tendencies that are ruling over these parties, it’s not necessarily numeric, it’s some intersection of numbers and how ferocious the feeling is. And there’s a small number of people for whom abortion and trans rights are the single most important thing in the world, and there’s literally nothing more important, and they will move heaven and earth for it. And those people are very loud. And they’re not necessarily very numerous.

One of the things that this conservative woman, this former Conservative Party powerbroker, had to say was that when she was a doorbell ringer for the Conservative Party during a general election, nobody who answered the door in rock-ribbed conservative Alberta gave a shit about trans people. It was just not an issue they cared about. It’s a way for Internet-poisoned politicians to get internet-poisoned Twitter freaks to love them. But the people on the doorstep care about housing and education, all the bread and butter stuff. The cultural war stuff doesn’t even register for them. And so I don’t know whether they’re very powerful or very weak. And I don’t know that it matters, except as a tactical thing. If they’re weak it doesn’t mean we can ignore them.

Being Canadian

HH: This book is about local American politics, and it’s very rooted in Burbank, in Southern California. And you’re a Canadian-British-American of sorts. I’m someone who is extremely provincial in many ways, having only lived on the East Coast and the West Coast of the United States. Do you feel that you were able to write about our politics differently as a Canadian? I’m also a very big fan of Naomi Klein and her work, and also all the comedians that have come from Canada. And I’m wondering if this has anything to do with your interest in Disney World?

DOCTOROW: Ha! That’s an interesting question. I think that Canadians do have an advantage, which is that they are very, very close to American culture, but not of it. So they have a comparator. We can step outside the paradigm to a certain extent. We’re steeped in the paradigm, but we can step outside the paradigm.

HH: Fish that can see the fishbowl.

DOCTOROW: Yeah, that’s right. Now, it’s offset by a disadvantage. And that disadvantage is that we don’t have the intimacy that Americans have. We’re separated by this membrane from American culture. It’s true, there are lots of great Canadian commentators on on this stuff. And Naomi is one of them. And as you say, our comedians are really good. I like to think that the comedian story is a bit like the kid who’s not in any of the popular cliques at school, and instead just stands in the schoolyard and observes their dynamics very closely, while still standing outside of it. And this is why Canadian comedians are so good at making Americans laugh.

Tomorrow: in Part Two of The Lost Cause interview, we discuss Burbank, the World Economic Forum, and the AI apocalypse.

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