Just a book review I wrote for The Fourth Estate, the campus newsletter…I’m guessing I have reproduction rights, its not like they’re paying me or anything 🙂 .
It’s a little hard to know where to start when you’re reviewing a book like “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”, by Cory Doctorow. It’s even a little hard just to decide what kind of book it is: science fiction, of course, but is it a tragedy or a comedy? Utopic or Dystopic? Bridget Jones’s Diary or Anna Karenina? The wit and banter are easily observed, but so is the anguish, and the futuristic theme comes packaged with the murder-mystery element and the social commentary. Perhaps it is best just to present the book as it is, and let the readers decide.
“Down and Out” is set an unspecified time in the future, “some time late XXI”, when a new found abundance of resources has solved all of today’s major problems, the basic economic rules have been turned upside down, money has been abolished and the “Bitchun Society” covers the globe. A system of reputation points called “Whuffie” determines the allocation of the few scarce resources around, although everyone has access to food, shelter and information. Everyone in the Bitchun Society is always online, connected through neural implants, and their “respect” for other people is converted into Whuffie. Death has been cured by the invention of mental backups and force-grown clones, and Disney World (aka the Magic Kingdom) is the entertainment centre of the world. “Whuffie is concrete karma and the world is a giant P2P network. Reputation is everything. When your Whuffie is high, you are a god; when it’s low, people treat you like you have a personal hygiene problem and when it’s zero, elevators look down their noses at you.”
Julius is over 100 years old, although he’s “apparent 40”. When we first meet him he’s wasting away as a graduate student in Toronto, although he has “learned ten languages and composed 3 symphonies”, and he’s just met Dan, a “missionary” for the Bitchun Society in the few pockets of civilization that have yet to accept it, with a cowboy vibe and more Whuffie than could fit into Julius’s standard display. In the next chapter Julius is fulfilling his boyhood dream of living and working in Disney World with his girlfriend, Lil, who is just 15% of his age, when Dan calls on him, washed up with near-zero Whuffie and in dire need of help. Dan wants only to die, but when Lil suggests that he’s too late, that he should have cut the cord ten years ago, retiring permanently as a champion and not fading away as a loser, he decides to work with them for a while, to build up enough Whuffie before closing the curtain.
There’s trouble in paradise soon enough- at 220 pages DOMK is a fast-paced book. Disney World is being run by ad-hocracies, small groups that take care of specific areas, and the Liberty Square ad-hocracy that Lil and Julius work with is under fierce competition from a talented sim-coder called Debra who wants to replace the ancient animatronics with pristine white sim-boxes. The rest of the novel deals largely with this competition. In the very next chapter Julius is killed and restored from a backup, and Debra takes over the Hall of Presidents in Liberty Square for an overhaul. Julius is convinced that it is Debra and her cronies who arranged to have him killed and he fears that they will now try to take over his favourite ride, the Haunted Mansion. He stoops to sabotage the grand premiere of the revamped Hall of Presidents, and instead finds himself sick and offline, his interface erratic. Debra’s show is a great success, they both work very hard to keep up with it in the Haunted Mansion and passions turn to anger when Julius is still offline and is unable to access his hormonal supplements. Julius begins a grand scheme to revamp the Mansion with more human interaction, but things go awry after his interface remains faulty and he drives Lil into Dan’s arms. Julius finally “cracks” when he sees his dreams turned to dust and he bashes up the attractions in the Hall of Presidents. This pushes his Whuffie to ground level when he is caught and gives Debra and her colleagues enough “sympathy Whuffie” to take over the Haunted Mansion, by invitation of the same fans that Julius recruits to work in the Mansion. Dan leaves Lil, Julius is kicked out of the adhoc and his Whuffie hits rock bottom – low enough that people steal from him with impunity and elevators don’t stop for him. Then comes the revelation: just before deadheading (putting oneself into a voluntary coma) till the heat death of the Universe, Dan reveals that it was in fact Debra who had arranged to kill Julius, with his help, in exchange for the Whuffie that her team could give him. Dan had asked one of his converts from his missionary days, a young girl, to do the dirty work. He makes this public; Debra is thrown out, Julius gets sympathy Whuffie and, ironically enough, falls in love with his sweet young murderess. He never restores himself, because doing so would erase his memories of that entire year, but lives the rest of his apparently eternal life with his deceased interface.
Doctorow possesses a skill that few writers in the SF/Fantasy genre today possess: his story is short and sweet and manages to turn your brain inside out with a mere 200 pages. There are, of course, contradictions and unexplained responses, as in any book: the human relationships that form the story are somehow a little less convincing, a little less believable than the fantastical future that Doctorow cooks up. As a story about the dangers of letting our fixation with technology, convenience and the “good life” strip our lives of the value inherent in things earned, worked for, and easily lost, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is likely to be one of the more surprisingly touching little tales you’re likely to pick up.
PS: Brief plot summaries rarely do a good novel justice, and I hope that anyone who finds this intriguing reads the book itself. This would be fairly easy if you don’t mind e-books, since the entire novel is available as a free download. Cory Doctorow is a proponent of “Free Culture” – he’s an Outreach Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and discusses his thoughts on the uber-blog www.boingboing.net, which he founded – and has declared the entire novel as free for noncommercial use under the Creative Commons license. You can download it at http://www.craphound.com/down/download.php.