• Hill Heat
  • Posts
  • The Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow: Interview Part Three

The Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow: Interview Part Three

Solarpunk, Russian nationalism, Friedmanism, and crows

The Lost Cause is Cory Doctorow’s new book about a near-future America where the Green New Deal has come to pass, but MAGA holdovers and crypto utopians are keeping the dreams of the far-right alive. Today’s post continues our far-ranging interview, picking up a few more of The Lost Cause’s many themes (check out Part One and Part Two) .

In Part Three of the interview, we discuss more good readings, reservoirs of ideology for good and evil, and what it’s like to be an old author writing a young protagonist.

Crows in flight. Credit: Maxim Sinelshchikov

HILL HEAT: I would like there to be more socialist science-fiction agitprop that talks about global warming in a serious way. I’m hoping that there’s more Cory Doctorows out there.

CORY DOCTOROW: Well, I’m sure there’s more of this. I just read a very good communist critique of solarpunk called “Forest and Factory.” I don’t know if you’ve seen it.

HH: I haven’t. I’m looking for what the recommendations are like that. In the same way that Paradise Built in Hell and Piketty were some of the inspirations for Walkaway. Lost Cause, for people who haven’t read it, has fun discussions of modern monetary theory versus crypto-utopianism. Are there any good books that people should read that you’ve been inspired by?

DOCTOROW: The one that comes to mind in terms of the vibe that is not wildly dissimilar is A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys. That’s a really chewy, interesting piece of technological speculation with a really good leavening of social speculation as well. The first contact plot is a really smart little parable for thinking about this and it draws out the contradictions. One of the things I like about Half-Built Garden and that I think is echoed in Lost Cause is that she doesn’t assume that there’s a clean slate and the new world is built atop it and the wreckers that you left behind just disappear.

One of the things that I think is wild is the re-emergence of Russian-Orthodox-Church-inflected Russian nationalism. You have an ideology and a faith that were absolutely prohibited. Just not allowed to practice in anywhere in the region, so all you had were these rumps and little churches from diaspora populations, but not the big monolithic church. And now you have the Russian Orthodox Church zooming back. All of a sudden, you have people calling for a new crusade, and who are convinced that they’re going to find Christ’s shroud or whatever it was those guys were looking for. It’s very weird for this stuff to pop up a long time later.

Ideology just doesn’t go away. So I really liked that Emrys kept these, they’re called “aislands,” hyper-capitalist flotillas pottering around the Pacific Rim, LARPing Ayn Rand novels at each other, even as the rest of the world has completely moved on.

It’s a bit like your appendix is a reservoir of all these different little micro-organisms that your body doesn’t need right now. But later on, if there’s an opportunity for them to emerge and effloresce, the next thing you’ve got some of those, some of that reservoir pops out. There are so many ideological reservoirs, and no ideology ever seems to be fully extinguished.

HH: As someone who very much grew up in the real liberal bubble, it’s been very interesting to me to see, whoa, people talk about unions, and they talk about socialism, and about power relations and organizing. And not just talking about it, they’re like, of course!

Some of these are reactions to straight reality. The economic distribution of society is much closer to the economic distribution of the turn of the 19th to 20th century than it was to the world that we grew up in. So it makes sense that the ideologies that worked for then are returning.

DOCTOROW: I think the weirdos who bankrolled Milton Friedman for 30 years until he could take control of the world really thought that if you could run Friedmanism for 40 years, that even if you reproduced the new Gilded Age, that nobody would still be talking like they were Wobblies. Once that whole thing had been extinguished, once the union project had been discredited by stripping it of any power so that it was a corrupt do-nothing institution that sucked money out of your paycheck and didn’t help you and set up these two-tier contracts and whatever, then the praxis would be lost. It would be like embalming pharaohs, we just wouldn’t know how to do it.

And that’s the amazing thing, is that there were reservoirs of real militant labor fervor somehow sustaining themselves without any oxygen or food supply. It’s wild.

HH: I just read the biography of Tony Mazzochi called The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor. And he was very much one of these people. He’s the person who developed the idea that became known as just transition. It doesn’t take that many people to preserve an idea and keep an idea alive.

That’s one of the things that I love about science fiction is the process of taking something that is only a few people were doing now, and asking, “But what if becomes everywhere?”

Although we have a generation now of techno-capitalists who read science fiction books as ten-year-olds and thought that they were blueprints, as opposed to stories.

DOCTOROW: Or warnings.

Old Author, Young Protagonist

HH: I could go on a whole tangent there, but I want to get back to the book. You are no longer a teenager, or even in your 20s. Neither am I. But your protagonist and his friends are. That’s a strong choice to write from that perspective. I think that you’re capable of doing that. But I’m interested in both the why, and the how of that. I can see why it’s worth it to write books that teenagers and preteens would want to read, but as an author, how do you get there?

DOCTOROW: I’ve been writing YA novels for 15 years. My first one 2006, so for more than 15 years now. I like YA protagonists. In this, he’s a little old to be a YA protagonist. One of the things about YA protagonists from just like a purely mechanical perspective, if you’re trying to make novels that are exciting to read, is that doing something for the first time has a drama that doing it for the 50th time doesn’t. It’s a cheap writer trick. The person who’s telling a lie of consequence for the 100th time is a banal fool. The person telling a lie of consequence for the first time is making wings out of wax and jumping off a cliff and not knowing whether they’ll survive the fall. So there’s this intrinsic boost you get from writing YA protagonists. There’s a poem by John Ciardi called About Crows that goes:

The old crow is getting slow;

the young crow is not.

Of what the young crow does not know,

the old crow knows a lot.

At knowing things, the old crow is still

the young crow’s master.

What does the old crow not know?

How to go faster.

The young crow flies above, below, and rings

around the slow old crow.

What does the fast young crow not know?


That’s the paradox of youth and age. You know stuff, but you’re too tired to do it. And also you know too much because you also know what will work, and you don’t know how contingent that knowledge is. So just because it didn’t work under different circumstances, it’s hard to really convince yourself that the circumstances are new, and that maybe it will work this time around.

You have this paradox where you get to be my age, and you’re like, “Oh, if I had all the time and energy I’d have when I was 20, I could do all kinds of cool things.” But also, if I were 20, I wouldn’t be doing those things because that’s what it means to be 20. It makes for a gnarly paradox to chew on.

I get at that in the book where they get that zoom-in from the woman who was the—I forgot what I’d made her—the Home Secretary or something or the Secretary of State under the transformative president who’s now living in the mangrove swamp that used to be Miami.

And she’s like, “All I want to do is take a shovel and dig things to save the world. I don’t want to have conversations about this stuff anymore. The time for talking about this stuff is over. I don’t want to do revolutionary fervor. I want to get my hands dirty and keep my hands dirty until I can’t hold a shovel anymore.” And that’s a very spry-old-person move.

The dirty not-so-secret of this book is that it’s a love letter to Stan Robinson. Stan’s characters are often variants of the tired old person and the incredibly adventurous and exciting young person. The protagonist of this book is modeled very strongly on the protagonist of Stan’s early novel Pacific Edge, which is, I think, the most optimistic novel I’ve ever read, and it’s a love letter to a different part of southern California. It’s a love letter to Orange County, which is a part of southern California I don’t find at all attractive, but that Stan has a lot of love for, having grown up there. I think of Orange County and I think of the Klan and Anaheim.

Pacific Edge

Coming up: hardship, fear, and climate migration.

Join the conversation

or to participate.