Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Cory Doctorow is an amazingly fast writer. I’ve watched him blog conference talks and leave contrails. I wish he’d written this book a bit more slowly.
“Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” imagines a utopia where death has become obsolete — upon fatal injury, a new body can be cloned, and the mind restored from backup. Scarcity has been eliminated, and money has been replaced by “whuffie” — the sum of a person’s reputation.
The story cleverly explores the consequences of these premises. In the main story line, the protagonist seeks revenge for his own murder.
The absense of death and scarcity makes people free to devote their lives to art and fun. The story is aptly set in Disney, pinnacle of creativity and surface cheer. Yet the lifelong pursuit of entertainment and art doesn’t solve existential conflicts or give people the adversity they need to grow up. The reputation economy creates a culture in which people are excruciatingly politic and upbeat, even as they betray each other and commit dastardly deeds for the sake of whuffie.
I enjoyed the way the book dramatized the consequences of the premises. But the novel might have been richer, if the author had taken more time.
The Disney utopia wants a bright, shiny, eery atmosphere; a sort of pastel noir. The surgically constumed characters and mind-possessing rides could be really creepy. Too often, the book describes the effect without creating the feeling.
With its characters, too, the book tells more than it shows. The protagonist is a creative slacker who’s on his third adulthood — changing channels through wives and lives. This is how the book describes his feelings about dating a much younger woman: “my girlfriend was fifteen percent of my age, and I was old-fashioned enough that it bugged me…I was more than a century old, but there was still a kind of magic in having my arms around the warm, fine shoulders of a girl by midnight.. I’d been startled to know that she know the Beatles.” Maybe the book’s making the point that a century of entertainment hasn’t made the protagonist grow up. But there are subtler ways of portraying the age distance.
My favorite aspect of the book is the dramatization of contemporary, wired life.
Characters have brain implants that give them instant access to information about the world; and send silent messages to each other using a wireless brain interface. People’s lives depend on backing up their brain regularly, yet they’re still tempted to prioritize urgent deadlines over backups and system maintenance.
Cory’s captured the psychological effect of constant connection to Google, email and instant messaging, utter dependence on digital data, and the perilous personal consequences of system crash without backup.
Anyone who’s worked in a highly political organization will recognize the endless rounds of socialization required for decisions, and the cheerful delusion zealously maintained in the face of disaster.
In summary (for Peterme, who always asks if I liked the book), the book meets the criteria for a good sci-fi novel; exploring ideas by extrapolating them to a future extreme, while satirizing contemporary culture. The book could have been richer and deeper; I hope that Cory slows down a bit for the next one.

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