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

The Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow: Interview Part Two

the terroir of Burbank, the AI apocalypse vs. the Green New Deal, billionaires and dirtbags

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.

In Part One of the interview, we talked about love, blogs, library socialism, the October Revolution, Canadian far-right politics, and being a Canadian in America. In Part Two below, we discuss the terroir of Burbank, the AI apocalypse vs. the Green New Deal, billionaires and dirtbags.

The Terroir of Burbank

HILL HEAT: I don’t really know that much about Burbank and Southern California. And it’s such a very physical place in The Lost Cause. The arc that these places that are 20th-century paradise locations are becoming refuges, but then also also becoming unlivable, is one of the most important stories that I don’t think people broadly are grappling with. I’m also just interested in the setting itself and your experience with it, and those townhall meetings.

CORY DOCTOROW: Burbank is very different from the rest of Southern California. And in fact, Southern California, each little town really does have its own terroir. The Valley is different from from LA city broadly. And then Burbank is different from the Valley yet again. And while Burbank has its own right-wing tendency, the legacy of Lockheed, this having been at one point of a really important military industrial town, it does have a ton of swivel-eyed loons.

HH: Your protagonist Brooks Palazzo, their great-grandparents were ...

DOCTOROW:  ... Lockheed engineers. I go to estate sales around here, and you can get the most eye-watering John Birch Society literature from people’s dead grandparents. And we still get Birchers-this is like Civil War reenactors-we get Birchers who table during our our Food Truck Fridays, where they shut down the main road and they open it up for the Girl Scouts to sell cookies and the high school dance squads to do performances. All the food trucks come out. And there will be three old guys with a table selling, giving away John Birch Society literature.

The scene at Burbank’s Food Truck Fridays. Credit: Ashley Erikson

DOCTOROW: Town hall meetings? You will often go to a town hall meeting and see the most amazing stuff. The Burbank Historic Society is basically a coalition of white people who hate Armenians. And their recreational activity is challenging Armenians who try to get permits to expand their homes so their grandparents can move in over the garage.

HH: Yeah. That’s literally a line in the book.

DOCTOROW: Yeah. I was at a town hall meeting where these guys from the Burbank Historic Society showed up and they’re like, “We want to be able to challenge zoning variances. And then if they’re deemed to be frivolous challenges, we want this $75 challenge fund refunded so that we can do another challenge. It’s costing us too much to make all these frivolous challenges. You know, can City Council please help us?”

So that’s one side of the city.

The other side of this city is that it is where all the skilled trades in the studios historically lived. So it’s full of union halls. You go on Burbank’s Magnolia Boulevard and there’s probably twenty union halls, pipe fitters, electricians, costumers, animators guild. Everywhere you look. I bank at one credit union, but it’s got reciprocity deals with all the other credit unions. And all the other credit unions are run either by labor unions or by studios in association with their workforce. So there’s two Disney credit union ATMs. There’s a Technicolor ATM I got to use. It’s a very odd town, it’s super unionized.

During the AI strikes, that was here. Yeah, there were some people on the west side at Netflix or whatever. But three of the major pickets—Disney, Warner and Universal—were in Burbank, and there are so many satellite buildings for each of those studios in Burbank, that there were pickets there too.

Picket in front of Warner

Members of the writers and actors’ guilds picket outside the Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. Credit: Ringo Chiu

DOCTOROW: And that tells you two things. It’s a union town and it’s a town of union activism. This is a very progressive labor workforce. Even Lockheed, which also brought in a bunch of far right weirdos, Lockheed is also a union shop. You have tons of unionized, heavy trades, as well as skilled trades. And it’s a crazy combination. It’s a very bohemian place. The lots were sold to the original owners. Most houses here are either second or third owners. We’re the third owner between the original owner and a flipper who had it for two years before us. This 1939 house had just us and the original owners. The original owners  were all skilled tradespeople or heavy industry people. They all built their own houses. Every house looks different. They’re super idiosyncratic. And there’s a bit in the book where I talk about how weird the extensions on the backs of the houses are. All of these houses were two in ones. And they’re now all three and twos. And every single extension was built by some guy and his friends with a six pack over a weekend.

The Green New Deal v. the AI Apocalypse

HH: There’s a real celebration of construction and repair and the physical trades in The Lost Cause. It’s something that the Green New Deal rhetoric and vision really captures: There’s a lot of work to be done to end the use of fossil fuels and survive the Anthropocene. And that work is worth doing.

DOCTOROW: There’s a funny origin story there, too, now that you mention that element. During lockdown I got asked by the World Economic Forum to host a Zoom lecture about AI and the future of labor. After discussing it with them, I wrote them a speech that said, “First of all, I think AI is nonsense. But even if you stipulate that AI is going to come for your job, that doesn’t matter. We have full employment for the next 300 years, because we’re going to have to do things like relocate all the coastal cities 20 kilometers inland.”

And they said they’d approve this, they asked for it. They saw it, they said it was fine. And then the day before the speech, they called me up and said, “We’ve decided to go in a different direction.” And they canceled the talk.

I think that it is an inconvenient truth of this moment where we have all of this climate debt, that the idea of fully automated luxury communism or the panic over AI-driven unemployment, they’re both outmoded concerns. What we really have is a massive labor shortage for the entire foreseeable future.

HH: I see them as forms of escapism. Especially the AI apocalypse, and even worrying about asteroids. It’s an interesting displacement.

DOCTOROW: I think that’s exactly right. I also think that there’s a slight difference with the AI apocalypse thing, which is that there’s a version of the AI apocalypse rant that says, “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but my technology is so powerful, it’s going to end the human race, which is why you should give me $3 trillion to make my own microchips.”

HH: Unfortunately I don’t have the cleverness of Sam Altman. I’ve not been able to make myself read more than two or three pages of Toby Ord.

DOCTOROW: You don’t need to.

Talking Neal Stephenson…

HH: This is really showing that I once was a youthful techno optimist who then went and learned about global warming and life—but I personally enjoyed how much The Lost Cause responded to Snow Crash.

DOCTOROW: Ha! That’s funny. I hadn’t really thought about that how was it a response? I guess it is.

HH: I mean especially with the flotilla ...

DOCTOROW: That’s true.

HH: ... but also in some ways the broader Neal Stephenson career arc is someone whose one of his first books was about a Greenpeace activist fighting PCB pollution

DOCTOROW: Yeah, Zodiac.

Zodiac and Termination Shock

Neal Stephenson’s eco-fiction, from 1988’s Zodiac to 2021’s Termination Shock.

DOCTOROW: I liked that book, though. I thought it was a good book. I thought it was a well-engineered book. I don’t know about its politics, there are elements of it that I disagree with. But it was a fun book. That book is a romp. While I was in the Netherlands, I actually went to Rotterdam to see the giant robot arms.

HH: My capsule review was that he, Neal Stephenson, writes about the people he hangs out with. And he used to hang out with dirtbags in Boston, but now …

DOCTOROW: That might be so.

HH: There were some very good tips in that book for how to get on and stay on the good side of billionaires.

DOCTOROW: That’s very true. It’s funny, Neal and I are going to be on stage together on my next book tour in a couple of weeks in Seattle, so I’m looking forward to talking to him about that.

HH: Snow Crash wasn’t explicitly a global warming book, but it was set in a future where there was global warming. That’s why everybody was going up to Alaska, because it was now warm there. And he’s now writing explicitly au courant books about global warming politics. And Kim Stanley Robinson has followed that same arc.

The Ministry For The Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate fiction.

HH: 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.

In the next part of our interview, we discuss solarpunk, ideological reservoirs, and the paradox of age.

Join the conversation

or to participate.