Review: Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Today I just finished Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. It’s the first epub book I’ve ever read and the first ebook I’ve read that I hadn’t previously read as a physical book. I’d been wanting to read the book for a long time, but the idea of sitting at my desk to read or plugging my laptop in and reading wasn’t appealing. In fact, I almost bought the Barnes and Noble Nook to read Cory’s book, but I’m convinced there’s a pricedrop coming given the Kindle’s recent price drop. Finally, I took at trip Let me just say that I recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of science fiction. I will now get into my thoughts about the book – there will be SPOILERS!

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a short science fiction book; the epub version I downloaded off his site has 145 pages according to fbreader. I was able to read it within the 40 minutes or so I had of battery life on my laptop over both legs of the trip. It is, as you can read nearly everywhere, a book that takes place in a future where the main characters’ ancestors/predecessors have staged a coup at Disney World in Orlando and run it according to the principles of the Bitchun Society. (A fun pun throughout the book) The Bitchun Society is a social structure that essentially takes the rules of the Internet out into the real world. The world is run by ad-hocracies those who have proven themselves to be the best at a given job are the ones who do it. The book’s central conflict revolves around the ad-hocracy that runs the Fantasy Land section of Disney losing out to another ad-hocracy that makes the rides so awesome that everyone wants to ride them. They use this prestige (measured in the book as Whuffie) to take over other rides so they can, eventually, end up running the entire park. The neat thing about Whuffie is that it puts into practice the concept you always hear bandied about in politics – political capital. They always say, the President is spending political capital to get such and such a bill through Congress. He, obviously, is not expending any real currency, but is calling in favors. After he has called in all his favors, he will no longer be able to get people to do things they’re not entirely on board for. In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom Whuffie literally becomes capital. Whuffie is accrued by commanding respect amongst one’s peers by doing awesome things – writing a great symphony, saving a town from disaster, etc – and it is spent both to get others to do stuff for you and to buy food and all the other things you need in life.

The world in which all this takes place is a utopian world where death has been conquered and scarcity is no longer a problem. In fact, Whuffie came about because without scarcity there was no way to structure an economy. People have electronic implants in their brains that supplement their thinking – allowing them to essentially surf the net, send text messages, and look up the Whuffie value of those around them. Thanks to these implants, it is also possible to record one’s memories. Similar to the technology in The 6th Day, people make backups of their memories. Then, when they die, they have their memories implanted into a new body. This leads to the characters talking about apparent age. You could be 90 years old with your memories implanted into the body of a 20 year old. In fact, many people just “kill” themselves when they get too old and migrate into a younger body.

But, my interpretation of the world Cory created in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is that it is actually much closer to a distopia, but one in which the characters are oblivious to the fact that it is distopic. It’s hard to tell for sure if this was Cory’s intention because Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is less anvilicious than most other distopic books. The best way I can describe it is that the characters are like most of the characters in Brave New World, only, unlike that book, there is no main character who realizes that everything is wrong. Because death is not permanent, people take on dangerous behaviors because there are no permanent consequences. Many of the younger characters are said to be high on crack in various parts of the book. Additionally, the idea of Whuffie and ad-hocracy is rife for gaming the system. A campaign to defame someone could leave them unable to work or have any kind of life or luxuries because it would deplete them of all Whuffie. Additionally, people get so bored of being able to live forever that they often “deadhead”, or do a final backup and kill themselves off with instructions to be revived within a century or a millennium. The book also mentions that the implants provide humanity with chemicals and hormones to regulate their moods. It is implied that this has taken the vigor out of humanity and when someone ends up not getting the chemicals anymore, he is seen as too irrational by his compatriots.

Finally, there is the idea, of which we only skim the surface, of toying with people by messing with their backups. The main character destroys his neural implant when an EMP goes off and is unable to backup. As more and more time passes, his restoration would leave him more and more ignorant of what had gone on. This could be quite disastrous as in the case of the main character where he had broken up with his long-time girlfriend since his last backup. He would be revived with no knowledge of the fight and very much in love with his girlfriend who had moved on. Imagine the tricks that could be pulled on someone who was lax in backing up? Or, what if you hacked into the backup system and removed the latest backup or the latest 20 backups. You could destroy a person’s psyche.

I’m pretty good at intuiting how plots will unfold because of the insane amount of books I’ve read in my lifetime. So I predicted very early on that Dan would end up being involved somehow in Julius’ death. I also believed that Debra had something to do with it, but I was unable to guess why she was so convincing in her denials. That was a pretty good plot twist. The ending was mostly satisfying. It didn’t end abruptly like Neal Stephenson’s early novels. It was neat to find out why the novel was written from the first person perspective – the author was making a note to himself for when he’s revived from a very stale backup. It is foreshadowed if you’re very good at picking up on those (I didn’t with this one) by the fact that he often tells you the outcome before you know what happened. (eg “It should have worked, but it didn’t. And here’s what happened) But, at the same time, I felt a bit disappointed. I would really have liked to have known if Julius found Zed again. And I just felt a tiny bit of closure missing.

In the end, I really liked it and it’s a short enough read that any sci-fi fan should check it out. And, it was a very good experience for my first real ebook.

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