Review of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow


This fascinating little book was Doctorow’s first novel, which he released under a Creative Commons non-commercial licence that allowed anyone to download and read the book for free, alongside its release by Tor.

DownandoutJules 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 realise 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 ‘ad-hocs’, who keep the classic attractions running as they always have, enhanced with only the smallest high-tech touches.

But 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 the 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. Worse: it appears that this new group has had Jules killed. This upsets him. (It’s only his fourth death and revival, after all.)  Now it’s war…

I generally find it difficult to really get enthusiastic about books featuring post/transhuman characters – for the simple reason that they are so different, I don’t feel any emotional bond with them. Not poor old Jules, though… despite his technological advantages, he is very humanly flawed and believable, driving the tempo and tone of the story forward as it teeters between farce and tragedy without losing our interest. The whole world works really well – although I have to say that the term ‘whuffie’ scraped across my synapses, rather. And for those of you scratching your heads over that one, in a society where food and shelter are freely available and money is obsolete, your reputation/standing or whuffie, is what people work towards boosting. Those with high whuffie gain admiration and respect, if not outright fame from everyone else. However, it has to be constantly worked at and it is all too easy for those with a high whuffie rating to lose it by making a series of bad decisions. I hasten to add, that it isn’t the concept that bothers me – I happen to think that it’s a smart, slick idea with plenty of purchase – it’s the word. ‘Whuffie’ puts me in mind of a small terrier breed of dog with a bristled coat and uncertain temper… However, I’ll freely admit that it is a very picky point, and not one that merits knocking off any points as it didn’t dent my enjoyment too much.

I can understand why this slim volume created such a stir, in addition to receiving a nomination for the 2004 Nebula Award.  The plot drives forward with plenty of twists that provide real pageturner appeal, which doesn’t prevent Doctorow from making some nicely pertinent points about his society.  The fact that the battle plays out for Disney World – a prepackaged shot of nostalgia that never existed in the first place – creates a sense of wierd hilarity, while becoming a symbol for something that transhumanity has lost.   There are a number of books who have attempted to describe a transhuman society, where technology has shifted Man’s perspective so far away from our current concerns, that sociological and personal goals are completely different. Mostly, they fail. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is among the select handful I’ve read that actually have succeeded in creating a plausible scenario where transhumankind live and breathe – and I care that they do so…

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