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 Julius’s voice:

“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 week.

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 common interests.

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).