Jules is a young man barely a century old. He's lived long enough to see the cure for death and the end of scarcity, to learn ten languages and compose three symphonies...and to realize his boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World.
Disney World! The greatest artistic achievement of the long-ago twentieth century. Now in the care of a network of volunteer "ad-hocs" who keep the classic attractions running as they always have, enhanced with only the smallest high-tech touches.
Now, though, it seems the "ad hocs" are under attack. A new group has taken over the Hall of the Presidents and is replacing its venerable audioanimatronics with new, immersive direct-to-brain interfaces that give guests the illusion of being Washington, Lincoln, and all the others. For Jules, this is an attack on the artistic purity of Disney World itself.
it appears this new group has had Jules killed. This upsets him. (It's only his fourth death and revival, after all.) Now it's war for the soul of the Magic Kingdom, a war of ever-shifting reputations, technical wizardry, and entirely unpredictable outcomes.
Bursting with cutting-edge speculation and human insight, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom reads like Neal Stephenson meets Nick a coming-of-age romantic comedy and a kick-butt cybernetic tour de force.
One of the many complaints I hear about Cory Doctorow'sDown and Out in the Magic Kingdom is that it is "shallow." Readers see a shallowness in character, a shallowness in the work they choose, a shallowness in story depth, and a shallowness in the story's morality.
I don't see it myself.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom may seem shallow, but there is a great deal of depth to be found if one approaches the book with a willingness to overcome the prejudices and perspectives of our current culture, to project oneself into the mindset and morality of the future world Doctorow has created.
I won't go into the story itself with any detail, as I don't want to spoil anything, but Doctorow's finest achievement in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is the way he explores the question of morality. In a world where death and disease are over, where scarcity is barely remembered, it becomes clear that morality, even our morality today, is formed and shaped by mortality -- or the lack thereof.
The only real immorality in Down and Out seems to be the destruction of another's work. Only the tangible creations of an individual or a team ("ad-hoc") have value. Adultery, theft, destruction and even murder have no real negative value. They may reduce a person's prestige ("Whuffie") for a short time, but it is not difficult for the "victim" of any of these crimes to remain close friends or become close friends with his or her "victimizers" once he or she is "rebooted."
What this suggests for ourselves is fascinating: that morality itself is based on our mortality. The shortness of our lives, the moment of death that we all face, is the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong. I am sure some would say, "So what? That doesn't change anything. Wrong is wrong. Bad is bad. Evil is evil." Perhaps. But perhaps not, and what makes Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom a victory for me is that it makes me wonder about the perhaps not.
Anything that makes us consider our morality rather than just blindly accepting what has been passed down to us is a good thing, as far as I am concerned.
And so that leaves me with one nagging question: how can a book that expects us to make considerations about mortality and morality really be considered shallow? Very simply, it can't be.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow’s debut novel first published in 2003 is a uniquely anti-dystopian science fiction offering in a landscape of post-apocalyptic also-rans.
In a world where many writers are dreaming up new variations on the old 1984 theme, Doctorow delivers a pleasingly nonconformist tale where most pestilential elements of the dystopian brand have been made a thing of the past. There is enough food in the world, illness has been all but eliminated and people get to do about whatever they want.
Living in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is what Julius wants and he gets it.
This reminds me somewhat of the far future sections of Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years and also the upload consciousness and reviving / renewing / rejuvenating body themes of Anderson’s Harvest of Stars, Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, and Scalzi’s Old Man's War. Get cancer? Plug into a new body. Old age getting you down? Rejuvenate down to an apparent age of twenty. Can’t get rid of that cold? Record a back up and start again.
His use of neologisms and the ad-hocracy neuvo anarchism is reminiscent of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, but without the ultraviolence.
At least, without most of the crime.
Amidst the seemingly perfect world, Doctorow demonstrates that human nature doesn’t change and there is nothing new under even an ideal sun. Doctorow’s prose is fresh and sophisticated, urbane and intelligent and this is a very good book from a talented writer with original ideas.
Even though I find him massively annoying in the way I always find professional bloggers annoying (read: if I am honest with myself, it probably has mostly to do with jealousy), I have to admit, I think it is pretty cool that Cory Doctorow gives away all of his books for free (the smug bastard).
I listened to a surprisingly well-produced amateur audiobook of this one about a year ago (you can probably still grab it free from... wherever it was I found it. Podiobooks.com?) and even though I didn't love it, I do think of it from time to time, to the degree that I am considering foisting it upon my real world book club, because I think it would be really easy to find stuff to say about it. I mean, I want to talk about Battlestar Galactica and Tron too, but we should probably try to focus a little on the book.
So anyway, as you might expect from someone who makes a living being adored on the internet, here Cory Doctorow has engineered a world where everyone is immortal (thanks to digital memory backups that can be downloaded into clone bodies) and connected to social networks all the time (literally, via implants in their brains and eyes!). If your society is going to eliminate death, you better well have all the other animal needs taken care of, and this one seems to: there is no hunger, pollution isn't an issue, and traditional concepts of wealth-through-accumulation-of-things are a thing of the past (note the book is unclear on whether this is the case everywhere; maybe, say, Ghana has been allowed to just quietly go about its business).
Instead of money, status is determined through a true social currency: others' esteem, a system Doctorow has given the stupid but memorable name "whuffie." Like an extreme extension of re-tweets, you earn more whuffie if people look at you as an influencer, an innovator: someone worth knowing. Do something dumb and they can take their whuffie back. Like Homer says, in Doctorow's world, first you get the sugar, then you get the whuffie, then you get the women (note: I know this isn't really a Simpsons quote, shut up).
So this is the interesting idea at the core of this book, which is really just an extended demonstration of the concept adorned with additional sci-fi ideas (digital immortality!) in a fun setting, namely (obviously) Disney World, where the rather unlikeable main character works as an "Imagineer," perfecting the "guest experience" of decades old theme park attractions while remaining slavishly faithful to their nostalgic qualities. This should be super fun for me, because I am a nerd who has read blogs (blogs!) about the development of Disney attractions.
But even though the book is very short, I kind of got sick of it after a while. The characters are all pretty unlikeable (no whuffie from me!), and once the whole social/economic system has been thoroughly explained and explored, there's not a lot to go on, despite the effort to turn tweaks to The Haunted Mansion and the Hall of Presidents into a high-stakes political game (memo to Imagineers: The HOP is where people go to cool off; consider relaunching it as The Hall of Naps). I mean, there are multiple murders and it is still rather dull, mostly because they don't really factor (and Doctorow pretty much sidesteps the whole theological angle, though he's probably right that people wouldn't worry about that too much once they realized they could actually live forever -- I want to know what happens next too, after all).
Still, it explores some fun ideas. And it's free and available for download now! I mean, so is everything else, but at least you don't have to steal this one.
Out of every sci-fi movement that has come and gone, my absolute favorites are the glorious post-cyberpunk transhumanism movement. Can I have the application form now, please? Thanks to Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow, I get to be giddy on the tides of consciousness uploads and post-scarcity economics. Who said utopian fiction was dead? Please, oh please, give me MORE!
It’s a future post scarcity, post death and reputation(popularity) matters. Permanently connected, enhanced bodies, clones waiting if you get ill or have an accident, backup regularly so you don’t lose any memories. It’d an interesting world that the author has created here. Unfortunately the setting for the story is Disneyworld and I just couldn’t get into it that much. I’m not really a theme park kind of person. The main storyline revolves around either keeping attractions traditional or using technology to take them to new levels. There’s lots of internal jargon that took a little while to get used to but it was an easy read. Julius, the main character , wasn’t the most exciting hero for me and so this was a disappointing read but the ideas were interesting and thought provoking.
Messy, unfocused. Characters are poorly-formed and unlikeable. Doctorow starts out with several intriguing conceits -- eternal life though computer-style backups and clones, the evolution of themed environments, hard currency replaced by popular esteem -- but he can't decide which one he finds most intriguing, and he even loses those prime notions a few times through needless tangents.
Doctorow obviously loves the cyberpunk novels of Neal Stephenson (which are themselves a tangle of ideas and tangents, with the characters clinging on for dear life), but "Magic Kingdom" is no "Snow Crash." It's "Snow Crash" cut with lots and lots of Drano. Doctorow writes great nonfiction for Boing Boing and the like, but his fiction is a muddle.
Like I often do, I went into this book blind, not knowing anything about the plot, and I assumed the title was some sort of a metaphor for a superficial society. In fact, most of the book is actually set within Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
My progress through the book went something like this: 1. At the end of the prologue, I was positive I would hate this book.
2. At the end of chapter 1, I decided there might be some hope after all.
3. Somewhere around the middle of the book, I realized my Kindle had permanently affixed itself into my hands.
4. When I finished the book, on the same day I had started it, I just sat there thinking, “How on Earth am I going to rate this?”
This is a science fiction story that takes place in the future, and life on Earth has changed a lot. Everybody’s brain is hooked up directly to an Internet-like interface that people can use to pull up information at any time. The way people react to you, to the things you do and the way you act, are instantly translated into a “Whuffie” score. This works as a sort of currency; there’s no longer any actual money. There’s also no more death. You can make a “backup” of yourself whenever you want and, if you die, a clone is grown and your memories are restored from the backup. This has become so common-place that nearly everybody will have themselves killed just to avoid sitting through a long trip in “real time”.
The world-building was pretty interesting. The characters were also interesting but, in retrospect, not very likeable. The plot itself is a little thin, basically centering on an argument about whether to change the attractions in the Liberty Square section of the Magic Kingdom. It doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting plot, especially to somebody like me who has no attachment to the Magic Kingdom whatsoever, but the book held my interest anyway.
I’m not sure how I felt about the ending. In the prologue, we were pretty much told how the story would end, but the reader doesn’t know enough at that point to understand what they’ve been told. Still, if you have any sort of reading retention skills, you’re probably going to know how the story ends long before it happens. It was the stuff that happened a little bit before the very end that surprised me more. I don’t think I was very satisfied by the ending, even if it seemed appropriate in a way. I like to at least see some sense of change, preferably improvement, at the end of a story, but I didn’t feel like anything significant had changed by the end.
I’m torn between giving this three or four stars. BookLikes makes this easy; I can just give it 3.5 stars. But on Goodreads, do I round up or round down? I decided to round down because I don’t think I enjoyed this quite on the same level as what I would usually expect from a four-star book.
If you made it this far and you’re interested in trying the book, I found it for free at the author’s web site: http://craphound.com/
Here we are, living and dying (again) in Orange County, FLA.
Thought provoking cocktail party fodder. I disliked Doctorow’s mitten-fisted writing, banal hippie-dippy characters (Beatles references included); however, the points I found interesting don’t concern the people as much as the technology.
Don't bother to savor the words. Read it quickly for the premise, then debate the promise of "TomorrowLand."
Essentially a problematic book that I disliked in execution, but highly discussable.
Super fun and nuts-yet-realistic-honestly look at a future where Disney World (along with everything else) is run by groups of "ad hoc" governments. Julius, a young man of barely a century, is part of the group that rules/maintains Liberty Square, and his favorite part is The Haunted Mansion. When a hostile takeover starts to happen, Julius scrambles to fight back.
Hilariously fun for Disney fans, as Doctorow himself is a big Disney nerd. There's a lot of clear love for the park here, and for all the rides.
My only complaint is that this is such a slim little book, I feel like we know the park better than the main characters by the end. I would have loved for it to all be padded out. There's a longish flashback about Julius' short, wild marriage that was very interesting, but almost the only digression in the whole book. I feel like it was only concluded so that the book was long enough to technically be called a novel. It would have made a bit more sense to add in other little bits and bobs about the society of the future and Julius' previous careers, and just make it a longer book. To me, anyway!
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is only 200 pages long, and it's far too short. The plot is rushed through at breakneck speed, and wrapped up far, far too quickly, with almost no time given to bringing the whole thing in for a landing.
Part of that is because Doctorow puts quite a bit of time into developing his Bitchun society. Death has been essentially eliminated. If you die, your consciousness is uploaded into a clone and you start over again. Tired of living? "Deadhead" for awhile by having your consciousness stored for a few decades, a few centuries, even a millenia or two. Money has been eliminated, replaced with a system called "whuffie". You gain whuffie through earning respect, which you then spend in place of currency. Everybody is completely wired, which makes it easy to track others' whuffie. All very interesting concepts, and something that I wouldn't mind reading again. That this is a 3 star book instead of a 2 star book is almost entirely due to this system.
It's not because of the characters, unlikeable one and all. Not even anybody at least fun enough that I can look over that they're all jerks. Petty, spiteful, mean-spirited, selfish and self-centered. The thought of a future Disney World being in the hands of these people made me very, very sad.
The Disney World setting probably is a huge draw for a lot of readers. It certainly was for me, especially when I saw that the plot would revolve around the Haunted Mansion in particular (my favorite). But that's another place that I ran into a few problems. Is Doctorow actually a Disney fan in real life? If so, he would understand that this is a baffling way to portray Disney fans. I am a Disney phile, and I can tell you that the idea that the overwhelming majority of Disney park fans would support making radical changes to a classic ride that involve completely stripping it and changing the very nature of the experience... Look, it's just not going to happen. I've seen Disney philes get mad when the parks changed the style of topiaries they used. Gutting Pirates would not be a popular move.
Doctorow is inconsistent about this, too. The main character spends the first part of the book complaining about his rival changing the nature of The Hall of Presidents. I believe that I'm supposed to feel sad when I read about the Lincoln animatronic being hauled offstage, and I do. So how am I supposed to feel when I read about the ballroom ghosts illusion being cut into pieces to remove it from the Mansion? I guess I'm supposed to be supportive because it's the main character that's destroying a classic, instead of feeling gut-punched because he's ruining one of the greatest things about my favorite ride. (Not one single character expresses the slightest bit of sadness that the ballroom ghosts will now be gone forever.) Other than the technical specifics, there's no difference between what the two camps are doing: both are destroying classics. And so I hated both and wanted nothing more than to see both groups lose control of the park to somebody who would actually preserve it.
I know that I'm ranting, but I can't help it. If this is supposed to be a science fiction book for Disney fans, I think Doctorow missed the mark. The characters in the book don't act like Disney fans, and they don't act like Imagineers (who would build a new ride to play with their new tech). SF fans who aren't big Disney philes would probably enjoy it more, but the storyline is too brief and the characters too noxious to make this a truly outstanding book.
Don't be drawn in by the author's reputation. Don't be drawn in by an interesting premise. Don't be drawn in by some of the impassioned defenses here. This book had no redeeming qualities. It reads like fan fiction, and bad fan fiction at that – very poorly written, laden with typos. All the characters are two dimensional, and the women are pure male fantasy. Frankly, the whole thing didn't add up for me. This is a world in which there is no death, but the narrative tension is dependent on murders. WHAT? In this futuristic landscape, where people are struggling to find meaning in their own humanity, you want me to care most about who gets to be in charge at The Haunted Mansion? What the WHAT? These are the lowest of low stakes. Positives: it was short, it was free, and it was really fun to tear the sex scenes to shreds over drinks at my bookclub.
Cory Doctorow's novella spins a tale set in the "Bitchun society" - a time in the future where death has been cured and money has been replaced by a system of respect/popularity points that's immediately accessible since everyone somehow has the internet in their heads now.
The "Magic Kingdom" referenced in the title is THE Magic Kingdom - the story takes place in Disney World, which has taken on an elevated importance in a world where people no longer have jobs or, essentially, purpose.
It's short and breezy, yet thought-provoking - despite all the changes technology has enabled, the main character clings to keeping the rides at Disney World in their original form and freaks out when someone threatens to update them.
As a native Southern Californian who has been to Disneyland a minimum of once per year since before birth, how could I pass up a book that combines science fiction with Disney?
I was really torn between giving this three stars or four. It scores high for creativity. It's got a very tight plot and some interesting ideas. It takes place at Disney World's Magic Kingdom. I've been there once, but it's so much like Disneyland that all the ride references made sense even if the geography changed. It's clear that Doctorow has a love and reverence for the Magic Kingdom. I even learned how they do the dancing ghosts in the Haunted Mansion. There were some interesting twists and turns in the plot that kept me turning the pages.
However, I think that the book suffers from a certain attempt hipness that only comes from true geekdom. Seriously, the "Bitchun" society? Crack smoking as normal? Popularity (whuffies) as currency? It came off as awkward and self-conscious. It was a good story and it was entertaining, but it wasn't one of the best I've read recently.
Cory Doctorow is one of the high profile current crop of sci-fi authors, he is also famous for his blogs on Boing Boing, and his stance on liberalising copyright laws (he even got into a trouble with the legendary Ursula K. Le Guin for posting an article she wrote on his web site.
The first book I read of Doctorow’s was Little Brother I enjoyed it very much though I felt that the prose and dialog could be a little better. Three years later I just got around to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, his first novel, and still one of his most popular (after Little Brother). When somebody at PrintSF (sf reading community) asks about where to start with Doctorow’s books this book always comes up.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is set in a post-scarcity economy where hunger, poverty and even death have been made obsolete. The absence of hunger hand poverty is not elaborated on very much but there is a mention “Makers” which seem to be the kind of nanotechnology “make anything” machines featured in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age and Charles Stross’ Singularity Sky. With all material wants satisfied money is no longer in use, however, there is still a currency of sorts called “Whuffies”. If I understand correctly whuffies are similar to “Likes” on Facebook or “Upvotes” on Reddit. The important difference is that whuffies are actually worth something, nice seats at restaurant, nicer houses and other privileges. The story of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom concerns the protagonist / narrator Julius’ struggle to hold on to his management position at Liberty Square in Disney World (the Magic Kingdom).
I like the 22nd century world that Doctorow depicts in this book, definitely one of the more optimistic visions of the future. The abolition of death through “backups” is always an interesting trope for speculation of how we would view our lives given that immortality is a thing. Personally I am of the opinion that after you are dead the version of you restored from a backup and put in a cloned body is not really you. Whatever your take on this idea may be it is regrettable that the issue is not explored in this book. Having built such an interesting post-singularity world it is a pity that Doctorow decides to focus the entire book on Walt Disney World, I am sure it is a very nice resort (never been there) but I want to know more about the world outside of it.
Doctorow employs a few neologisms in this book and he does not directly explain any of them. This is a fine tradition in sf writing where the meaning of the made up words gradually unfold through the context of the book. However, for the meanings to be inferred the author has to give clearer hints than what Doctorow has done here. For example after seeing the word “whuffie” a couple of times I assumed it is similar to Facebook’s “Like” but I did not know it has replaced currency. My failure or the author’s? You be the judge. Also words like “Bitchun Society” just sounds too juvenile to be used in any official capacity.
I have a feeling that with this first novel Doctorow tried too hard to be hip, hipster prose is really not very appealing to me. The protagonist and narrator Julius is too self indulgent to be sympathetic, as are all the other characters. The prose style is accessible and the dialogue is tolerable but I think Doctorow’s writing skills have improved substantially by the time he wrote Little Brother.
I can recommend this book with the above mentioned reservations. The world and the technology is quite interesting, the book is easy to read and quite short (around 200 pages). More importantly Cory Doctorow has made this book available as a free e-book which you can download at Project Gutenberg (link) and other sites.
This is a strange utopia – just like living now it is much better than quality of living for 99% of population during 99% of the history but we (quite correctly) find a lot to be dissatisfied about. In this post scarcity future everyone has enough to live forever – there is a system of cloning cum consciousness transfer so cheap that (a great quote): the thing that had all but obsoleted the medical profession: why bother with surgery when you can grow a clone, take a backup, and refresh the new body? Some people swapped corpuses just to get rid of a cold. And with a transfer you can deadhead (a verb, meaning to let your consciousness ‘sleep’ to some specified future date). There is no money but there is Whuffie score, a respect converted into a kind of currency.
There is a great start, the story begins with I lived long enough to see the cure for death; to see the rise of the Bitchun Society; to learn ten languages; to compose three symphonies; to realize my boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World; to see the death of the workplace and of work.
The protagonist tells us about his friend Dan, who was a kind of super-agent, saving communities, which due to different fears hid from the new society and then shifts to his own life – he lives in the Disney World with a girlfriend fifteen percent of my age, and I was old-fashioned enough that it bugged me. The famous entertainment complex is owned and operated by workers and there is quite a rivalry between attraction venues. The story gets a boost when the protagonist is assassinated in the park (with cloning it means just losing memories up to your latest backup) and he has a strong suspicion who did it.
In Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, times sure seem to have changed from today. Something called "Free Energy" has basically eliminated scarcity, while the ability to make computer backups of the self and download them into cloned bodies has eliminated death (and, for that matter, revolutionized medicine, since all defects can be fixed by downloading to a new body). Without scarcity, both work and money have become more or less obsolete, and been replaced by Whuffie, which measures how much respect other people have for you, whether from the everyday acts of kindness or jerkishness or from whatever kind of fame and celebrity one can chase down, and this Whuffie is used to determine access to the few luxuries that are still scarce (a table at the best restaurants or the best housing). And people are plugged into the internet 24/7--not in a virtual reality way, but more like today's internet shot into our brains at the speed of thought. People do... pretty much whatever they want.
For Julius, who's over 100 and in his third body, this finally means living and working at Disney World. The real dramas are played out in a magical land of unreality, where different groups compete to make their area of the park the best. It's a petty world, in many ways, which presumably is part of the point; nonetheless, on display are timeless emotions and struggles.
The writing remains nicely understated, hinting and implying as much as it tells, which I think works to the author's advantage, bringing the reader into a more active engagement. Doctorow strikes a balance between revealing this world of the future, exploring the characters and their relationships, and spinning a good tale. Despite the obvious differences between our world and the novel's, there exist equally-obvious parallels that offer food for thought.
I enjoyed the book thoroughly, and it was a quick read. As a bonus, Doctorow made this novel available as a free E-book, which can be downloaded free here. I found it to be worth the price and then some.
Damn, now I want to go to Disneyland. This book has everything I love about Doctorow- cool sci-fi concepts with interesting characters and plot that don't involve the world ending. So much current sci-fi is about space battles or apocalypses, and his stories are always about people. I thought Julius was a hilarious main character, and I totally felt for him when he did everything with good intentions and still never came out on top. The ruling thought/philosophy in this society is called "Bitchun" which my brain pronounced as "bitchin'" for the whole book, which was a lovely little pun that I'm sure he intended. It was a nice, quick read with some great world building.
Amendment to review 1_14_21 -- Although I originally gave this 2 stars, I have had to come back and make the rating higher. Why? Because even though I did not like the MC here, I had a lot more fun reading this book than I did reading Attack Surface, which I just finished, and which is also by Doctorow. So it seems that this one should be rated higher than 2.
It's funny, I really think Doctorow is a wonderful wordsmith and worldbuilder, but I am not all that crazy about what I have read of his. I wonder if he pays too much attention to his message at the expense of writing an enjoyable story. I will keep reading his stuff and try to decide.
I could not wait to be done reading this book. The author's writing and his worldbuilding are both great, which saves it from being ranked one star. I knew Mr. Doctorow's writing and worldbuilding skills excellent from reading Little Brother some years ago. But I just could not like this.
My problem is with the main character. Pathetic self-centered jerk, mainly. Even though he was
Plus, I hate
Too bad I disliked this so much because I planned to read everything of Doctorow's this year. But now maybe not. I will try Attack Surface next and then make a decision.
(The much longer full review can be found at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com].)
Okay, so it's finally time; time for me to finally make my way through the complete works of cutting-edge science-fiction author Cory Doctorow. After all, he's one of the four editors of my favorite website of all time, the profoundly unique pop-culture journal Boing Boing; and Doctorow's also a big champion of the exact political issues CCLaP cares about as well, including copyright reform, the elimination of so-called "Digital Rights Management" (or DRM) malware, the importance of do-it-yourself artists and the like. And besides, Doctorow also puts his money where his mouth is; that he's arguably* the most famous artist yet to offer digital versions of his projects for free download, meaning that a person can technically read his entire body of work without spending a dime, if one wants. All of these things mean that I should've become a completist of Doctorow a long time ago, and am in fact a little ashamed that I'm not; then add the fact that this thirtysomething's ouevre is not yet that large to begin with (only three novels, two story collections, and one book of essays), and I now really have no excuse.
I've decided, then, to tackle Doctorow's work in the order it was written; and that brings us at first to his explosive debut novel, 2003's "gonzo sci-fi" tale Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which has been heralded by not only critics but also peers and fans since almost the first day of its release. And indeed, now that I've read it myself, I understand why; because it turns out that Doctorow is not just a great cultural essayist, not only a dedicated technology activist, but in fact a legitimate creative genius as well, able to craft a story out of the dense tendrils of theoretical science and economics that nonetheless has a huge humanistic heart at the core of it, not to mention a pretty large amount of sincerely laugh-out-loud humor too. To start with, for example, the novel is set in a far-future society where scarcity is no longer a survival issue; where a form of free energy has been discovered and is now in use, where replicator-type machines can now create food and clothing from scratch, where even death has been eliminated through the dual perfection of both cloning and the digitization of consciousness. (So in other words, in the world of Down and Out, people can have their entire brain and all its memories "backed up" regularly to a computer system, which is then "uploaded" into a new body whenever the old one dies.)
Among many other profound changes to society, this has led to...
I'm not quite sure where I picked up a recommendation for this book, but I'm glad I did as I've been able to add Cory Doctorow to my fairly short list of contemporary science fiction writers that I truly enjoy.
In this entertaining short novel, Doctorow takes on the classic SF question of 'What if?' for something that genuinely could come to pass - the no wage economy, where everyone gets the basics they need and it's up to them, through ad-hoc arrangements, to find ways to earn social credit to get more, should they want it. In a way, the social credit (known for unexplained reasons, unless I missed it, as Whuffie) is the equivalent of the rating system in the Black Mirror episode where everyone constantly rates everyone else. The other major change to society, which is far less likely to happen, is that when someone dies they are recreated from a clone which is imprinted with their backed up memory - so death becomes a minor irritation (unless you aren't entirely comfortable with a copy of yourself being a true replacement), while some choose to be put to sleep for thousands of years.
Our hero, Julius, ends up at Disney World, where he works with a group that help maintain and run a group of the attractions, in a period when some of the traditional attractions (the gem of his group's collection is the Haunted Mansion) are being replaced by direct brain access experiences. The main thread of the story follows Julius's attempts at guerrilla action to save his beloved ride in a world where social capital is everything.
On the whole the novel works well - Doctorow manages to be genuinely interesting about the challenges faced by a society where no work is required and lives are indefinite, while never getting into boring polemic. The storyline had some small issues for me, particularly when an outcome is flagged up very early - but I really enjoyed this book, which feels like the kind of thing Pohl and Kornbluth would be writing now if still around - no greater accolade - and I will certainly be trying more of Doctorow's output.
I really like the idea behind this book and its general plot but Doctorow tries to introduce so many concepts and ideas that it gets all too confusing. The book is quite short but it becomes boring rather quickly and the unlikeable characters certainly don't help. I think this would have worked much better as a short story. It is certainly disappointing as a novel.
Provide free fuel -- check Abolish money -- check Conquer death -- check
What have you got? One Bitchun society!
Doctorow's novel takes place in a not too distant future where all the above and more have been achieved. Much of what exists is the predictive stuff you read about in popular magazines today: our computers are embedded within our bodies, we make phone calls through our cochlea, etc. That conquering death thing could still be someways off. Happy participants in the Bitchun society do frequent back-ups of themselves, in case death comes from misadventure. You don't want to lose too much time when downloaded into your freshly cloned body. Others just enjoy an occasional change, or don't want to put up with a bout of the flu. As a result, everyone has an apparent age of their own choosing and their actual physical age which could now be a century or more older than they look. Bitchun!
Jules, our hero, has lived several lifetimes, composed well-received symphonies, and earned three Ph.D's. But he discovers new meaning for his life on a visit to Disney World, Orlando. Here a finds a new lover among the employees passionately devoted to the un-revamped attractions around LIberty Square and the Haunted Mansion. Alas, even in this not particularly brave new world, hell still proves to be other people. The conniving Debra, fresh from a newly conceived Disney Beijing, has plans to bring things up to date around Liberty Square. Hiss. Boo.
This all sounds hopelessly lightweight for a novel, but Doctorow tells a good story and creates a convincing Bitchun society with hints of a darker side. Take away death and over-population becomes a problem. Jules previously lived in underground overflow facilities in Toronto. But since you spend most of your time in a virtual world, perhaps living a mile underground is no real burden. Off planet emigration is encouraged. Although he does not plan to do so himself, Jules knows more and more people who are "dead heading," having their back ups stored in canopic jars for a few years, decades, or even centuries. (You can also dead head for airplane flights, the best idea in the book.) If you have really had enough of life after a century or so, free lethal injections are available at the corner drugstore. But of course everything is free.
Is Disney World the perfect emblem of the Bitchun society? Doctorow plays lightly with his ideas with a plot that poses problems for his characters, some of them over a century old, that sound like the high-tech version of the problems kids with a summer job at a theme park might run into.
I'm torn when it comes to Cory Doctorow. In one sense, I am totally into the fact that the guy is obviously a student of 80's cyberpunk and computer technology in general. However, when I read this book, something didn't seem right about the whole thing. The best analogy I can come up with is working hard all day and thinking about eating steak for dinner, but then coming home to find out that you're getting a McDonald's cheeseburger. The technology and the ideas are there, but the story did not fill me with that rush that every serious reader is familar with.
The book is set sometime in the distant future, where death is but a minor inconvenience while you download to a new body and everyone has a network interface in their brain. Basically, when meeting someone for the first time, they are talking to you and googling you simultaneously. The story takes place in Disneyland, where ad hoc committees run the show. Two factions are vying for power. The first wants to keep the attractions as they have always been, while the second wants to use equipment to project the attractions directly to the visitors' brain interfaces.
One of the more interesting concepts in this book was the idea of currency. There are two kinds. One being the standard dollar in a more virtual sense than even we think of it now, the other being Whuffies. Whuffies are basically a currency of esteem or respect. What I found frustrating is that Doctorow never delves into the idea of Whuffies to my satisfaction. The reader is unsure how one accumulates or spends Whuffies, or the exact advantages of having a large quantity. In today's world, such a thing would seem like basically a tool for everyday retribution against strangers. Someone cuts you off in traffic - cha-ching - that'll cost you five Whuffies, buddy.
Despite all of the griping, if you are a student of cyberpunk, you will definitely want to give this a look.
A posthuman novel set at Disney World? Wow, this book was written for me! It's been about a century or so since a cure for death and the end of scarcity, and backups of people are downloaded into clones if they die. The narrator Julius works at Walt Disney World as part of an ad-hoc committee that controls Liberty Square. The Disney cast actually makes their own management decisions! Woohoo, no hierarchy in the Disney workplace. Maybe that only excites me because I used to work there and found it an incredibly oppressive environment.
It took me three tries to get through Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. The first time, when I was 18, I checked it out from the library and was weirded out by the technological immortality. Then I tried again when I was about 22 and I was bored by the plot, a struggle to preserve the Haunted Mansion as a historical and artistic artifact. Now that I'm working on my thesis on posthumanism at Walt Disney World, I'm all into Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.
This book is a lot like M.T. Anderson's Feed as far as internet-in-the-brain, but more utopian and less a critique of libertarian capitalism fueled by consumption and infinite expansion. If you're not into cyborgs, technological immortality, or Disney theme parks, I don't know if you'll like Down and Out.
I thought the general premise was interesting, and I was invested in learning more about this world that Doctorow had created, but I also think he wrote himself into a corner with that premise. By eliminating death as a real consequence and then using a murder (plus the threat of more murders) as the catalyst for the plot, he stripped the narrative tension away. One of the first things I learned was that death is a minor inconvenience, so then the murder didn't really mean much to me, no matter how many hoops Doctorow jumped through to try to explain why actually yes this murder matters. Then, of course, there's the concern that even within the confines of this world, I didn't care what happened to the Haunted Mansion. The stakes seemed extraordinarily low, and I could never tell whether the book was aware of that or not.
I got into a full discussion about this book on the Book Fight podcast:
What a boring, pointless book. It had a few interesting ideas regarding the future but overall I found myself just not caring about the plot (who the hell cares what happens to rides in Disneyland in a future where NO ONE DIES?!?) or any of the annoying unlikable characters.
What if you were effectively immortal? If, in the event of a fatal accident or disease (or murder), your backed-up consciousness could simply be reloaded into a young, cloned body? You’d have centuries to create new things, to learn new skills, to explore – or to get permanently bored and choose voluntary death.
What if money had disappeared, and instead, the world ran on a currency of reputation? If your wealth was measured in the number of likes you got, the number of shares, claps, stars and badges allocated to you by other members of society? The shy and retiring among us would be penniless, the smartest, most creative, most altruistic or most outrageous people, billionaires.
What if you’d dreamed your entire life of living and working in Disney World, and finally managed to make that dream real?
All stories have their genesis in speculation, but science fiction, especially, is driven by “what ifs”. Every scifi tale postulates an alternative reality – future, present or past – which differs from everyday experience in some fundamental ways. The best science fiction chooses questions that are both intriguing and have some moral importance. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow, falls into this category.
Jules, the protagonist, is a mere century old. Though he has been rebooted four times, he still remembers the world before the genesis of the Bitchun Society. And although he now lives in a world where your level of Whuffie determines both your influence and your quality of life, he’s old-fashioned in some ways. He sticks with his friend Dan through highs and lows of reputation. He’s squeamish about the notion of deadheading – abandoning your body and bottling up your consciousness for a few centuries or millennia, when things start to get boring. And he’s sentimental about the primitive but emotionally compelling attractions of twentieth century Disney World. He cares enough about the legendary Haunted Mansion that he’ll go to war and lose everything, trying to save it from being modernized and virtualized.
I don’t want to spoil your experience of Down and Out Etc. by telling you much more about the plot. Doctorow’s alternative, Whuffie-driven, world is eerily familiar in some ways, though the book predated the social media tsunami by more than a decade. The book considers whether electronically mediated experience can ever have the same value as direct interaction with the environment – and leaves that question open for the reader to decide.
We haven’t gotten to the point of backing ourselves up for future download, though the confluence of brain science and artificial intelligence might be moving in that direction. Doctorow explores some peculiar consequences of such technology, were it to emerge. For instance, the longer you go between backups, the more of your memories you’ll lose if you have to do a restore. Meanwhile, someone can perpetrate a horrific crime, then restore from a backup made before the deed, and literally have no memory of the event.
Down and Out Etc. isn’t perfect. It relies too much on a familiarity with Disney World and its attractions, which I don’t possess. Its economic model may be a bit too optimistic, as well. I think the economy posited in Doctorow’s more recent novel Walkaway, in which the zotta-wealthy cling jealously to the world’s resources, seems more plausible. On the other hand, the characters in this novel are much more vivid, believable and flawed than those in the later book. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, like all my favorite science fiction, is a book about ideas, but it’s also about human beings, love, fantasy and friendship.
And by the way – the author has made the book available for free via Project Gutenberg. You can download it in several different ebook formats from there.
When I started to wrap my head around the world that Doctorow was laying out, I had trouble figuring out what would be the conflict of this book. It's pretty hard core science fiction, full of predictions of technologies and their social ramifications. If we no longer had to fear death or illness and no one went without shelter and food and copious entertainment, what kind of conflicts would be left? Whenever you have a utopia novel, it usually ends in either discovering that the utopia is actually a dystopia with a horrific underbelly or something catastrophic happening to destroy the utopia that was somehow making us less human because we weren't striving enough or something.
Doctorow has the courage to resist the obvious choices and instead go small.
This book does not feature sweeping sociological change. Very little has changed at all in the end, which is just fine because the Bitchun Society is actually pretty awesome. But that's not to say there's no conflict. Doctorow believes that people are fundamentally the same at the bottom. And so in this world with no war and almost no crime, where everyone has enough and the only thing that matters is how much respect you can accrue from the people around you, we get a story seething with jealousy, love, resentment, friendship, pettiness, betrayal, idealism, naivete, and heartbreak.
All over an amusement park ride.
Because Jules and his friends (and foes) are still the same as any of us. And now that no one has to worry about losing their healthcare or not making enough money for retirement, everyone is free to follow their dreams--which often do not mesh with other people's dreams. Endless lifetimes do not actually confer boundless wisdom, and people keep making the same mistakes as they ever have. Which is depressing and yet ultimately a kind of hopeful way to look at the world.
This is a first novel, and it shows. Some of the pacing's a bit uneven and it's a little rough around the edges. But it's boundlessly creative and deals with the ramifications of its innovations more thoroughly than most science fiction. Also, it's published with the Creative Commons license, so you can pick up a copy for free, which is well worth doing.