Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Reviewed: March 19, 2004
By: Cory Doctorow
Publisher: TOR Books
208 pages, $32.95
In an age of big, thick books Cory Doctorow comes across
as something of an anachronism. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom weighs
in at either 208 pages or nothing at all, depending on how you acquire
it. That’s the other thing about Doctorow. Once he’d finished writing this
book and it was ready to go on sale, he decided to give it away as well,
making it available as a 65 page Adobe PDF download from his website, www.craphound.com.
With a little fiddling, I transferred it to my Palm
handheld, and that’s where I read it, even though the publisher had sent
me a hard copy of the book as well.
I felt that reading the book on a handheld PDA was appropriate
because so much of the “bitchun” society that Doctorow describes is completely
on-line. never mind that when Julius actually has to resort to using a
handheld it’s because he’s a very sick man.
Maybe it would be best to begin at the beginning. Here’s
“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.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day when Keep A-Movin’
Dan would decide to deadhead until the heat death of the Universe.”
In Julius’s world sick and aging bodies are replaced
by clones. memories are backed up digitally and downloaded into new bodies
when needed. You could die and be up and moving around by the end of the
Everyone’s basic needs are met. There is no cash and
a person’s status in the world is determined by his or her “Whuffie”, a
concept that seems to be equivalent to reputation, but is never clearly
defined. If you have abundant Whuffie you get to live at a higher level
of consumer wealth. The only work people do is what they chose to do; hobbies
can be indulged obsessively, but only things which impress people will
lead to Whuffie enhancement.
Everyone is plugged in to a form of the world-wide-web
they call hyperlink, connected by implants in their brains which enable
them to focus on heads-up displays that contain all manner of data, instant
messaging capability (perhaps as close to telepathy as we can get) and
access to everyone’s Whuffie count, so you always know where you are in
the social pecking order.
Some time ago, when century old Julius was a college
student, there was a revolution of sorts. The current crop of “generation
x” took over the world. Professionalism and traditional forms of social
order got thrown out in exchange for a world where nearly everything is
organized on an ad-hoc basis, so much so that the new basic social unit
is called the ad hoc and is composed only of people drawn together by their
Just possibly there are a whole lot of people with way
too much time on their hands.
A whole lot of these people converged on Disney World,
that symbol of innocence and overachievement, kicked out the current version
of Michael Eisner, and began to run the place as a series of loosely linked
ad hocs. Julius is living with Lil and helping to run the Hall of the Presidents
when he is assassinated. When he recalls the event later on, his most recent
back-up is enhanced with perspectives from other peoples’ points of view,
so that he is actually able to see himself being shot in the back.
Is it this trauma, or is it the fact that his new body
has defective uplink circuitry that leads to the bad months that follow?
Or perhaps Julius is just existentially troubled over whether the new Julius
is exactly the same as the old. Whatever the case, Julius comes apart bit
by bit, becoming paranoid and seeing plots everywhere. What’s worse, the
defect in his brain circuitry means that he can’t have a backup copy of
his memories made, and he is unwilling to give up the last year of his
best friend’s life just to be whole himself. In the end he questions everything,
including the whole ad-hocracy system that governs the park.
With two Disney rides already parlayed into feature
films over the last couple of years, I guess it’s no surprise that writers
would start mining that lode of story possibilities as well. Doctorow does
a good job of it, though I must admit that I found his extrapolation of
on-line society the most interesting part of the story, that and his memories
of life in space. But then, I’ve never been interested in going to any
of the Disney parks, much to the annoyance of my kids when they were younger.
Cory Doctorow was one of the applicants to spend a few
months at Berton House this year. He didn’t make the final list for some
reason, but he’ll probably try again. The Toronto born and raised writer
currently lives in San Fransisco, where he manages a website called www.boingboing,net
and doesn’t keep his own site up to date (the last posting there seems
to have been 2 years ago, while his most recent novel has been announced
on the boingboing site).