Book Review: The Lost Cause

November 20, 2023

I recently finished reading The Lost Cause, by Cory Doctorow, which asks (and answers) the question: Do some people seriously want to watch the world burn?. Here are my thoughts on the book.

Warning: This post contains (minor) spoilers!

It's no secret that the polycrisis is on a lot of folks' minds right now. In the last year, I've already read two other books on the subject: Neal Stephenson's Termination Shock and Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future. Like a good glass of orange juice, The Lost Cause is both pulpier and more digestible than either; Lost has more optimism than Termination and more realism than Ministry. Both of those books talk a lot about fixing the climate crisis, but Lost is the first I've read where the protagonist physically does something about it.

The Lost Cause takes place in the near, but not-too-near future; perhaps 2050. The world has moved far past coronavirus and Trumpian politics, but the scars are lasting. Politics is best represented as a triangle of ideologies:

  • Young Green New Deal-inspired idealists fight for sustainability, fairness for those displaced by climate change, walkability, density, public transit, and an eco-conscious mode of living reminiscent of Becky Chambers' Monk and Robot series.

  • Conservative landowners, referred to as MAGAs, advocate for exclusionary, stable politics -- freezing the world in the 1980s, refusing to make any lifestyle changes to the way they eat, transport themselves, or sleep.

  • Wealthy 'entrepreneur' plutocrats, driven out of the United States during the 8-year reign of a highly progressive president, roam the seven seas in a flotilla of cruise ships and aircraft carriers, pitching 'free market solutions' that extract maximum profit from the climate crisis.

Our story unfolds from the perspective of a young Burbanker, Brooks. His (liberal Green New Deal-inspired) parents died in a grisly pandemic when he was young, forcing young Brooks to move in with his ornery Maga grandfather. In the 90s, this might have been a setup for a brilliant sitcom where an old conservative parent and a young progressive kid mutually enrich each other with valuable life lessons derived from very different worldviews. Today, it's a lot more depressing.

At the beginning of the tale, Brooks' world is shattered: he graduates high school, his grandfather passes away, he inherits a single family home in Burbank, and his grandfather's Maga friends start to pressure Brooks to conform to their politics. Soon, a group of climate refugees move into town, and Brooks joins the effort to house them.

Brooks befriends, falls in love with, cooks food with George R. R. Martin levels of recipe detail, fights with, and makes up with his new group of idealistic friends. As time goes on, Brooks grows more and more radical, losing patience for the bureaucratic nightmare of modern politics that has utterly failed the Burbank refugees and the world at large. The young Green New Dealers take one step forward to help climate refugees or mitigate the effects of climate change, and the Magas force them two steps back, backed by the moneyed interests of the Flotilla plutocrats. Fights break out on social media and meatspace.

Our swashbuckling young hero has a few mental breakdowns and makes a few missteps as he learns how to best navigate his brave new world. Along the way, we learn about the best (and worst) ways to fight the Magas and the tech entrepreneurs of the Flotilla. Everything wraps up at the end with a big showdown that thankfully fizzles out in the shadow of Yet Another Climate Crisis.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It's the first book in a while that I genuinely had a hard time putting down. Part of that stems from my general agreement with everything Doctorow stands for, but the other part stems from the fact that this is just a really good read. The characters all talk exactly like Cory Doctorow, but they all have rich personalities, strong backstories, and their actions make perfect sense given those foundations. Characters frequently disagree and (mostly politely) discuss their perspective about how best to solve problems. It's probably a shade too optimistic, but if the last 5 years of the real world has taught me anything, it's that discussions with impolite jerks are really really boring.

I really enjoyed when Doctorow dives deep into oft-omitted mundane plot details like splitting a bill for croissants between a big group of people, finding a rental bike to ride across town, and the distinction between Ethiopian and Eritrean food. Those details may seem small, even boring, but when it comes to writing a book about the near future, I find them invaluable. Characters teleporting around town and eating takeout meals with no regard for expenses annoys me in pretty much all media, but it's unforgivable in a novel that asks us to imagine a better way of living. After all, that stuff is 50% of living!

Monopolies and oligarchies occupy a lot of my brainspace these days, and seem like an obvious cause of a lot of societal problems. While Doctorow doesn't focus The Lost Cause on the subject, he does drop a lot of hints about "Baby Googles" and "Baby Warners" that suggest a solution to an obvious current day problem. Plus, it's hard to not chuckle at "Duck Duck Google".

I do worry that Doctorow's characterization of Magas and tech entrepreneurs is a bit too simplistic. But my experience talking to people in the real world about those philosophies has always seemed awfully one dimensional, so perhaps he's not that far off from reality.

TL;DR: The Lost Cause gives me hope that we can move forward from the identity politics, monopolies, late stage capitalism, climate carelessness, and bureaucracy of the early 2000s. Some dialogue reads a bit like Doctorow sock-puppet philosophical theatre, but it's inspiring to read anything where characters actually solve a problem instead of playing political chess or shooting each other.