A Singular Debut: Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Reviewed by Tim Pratt
31 March 2003
Cory Doctorow, a Canadian living in California, has been a "promising young writer" for years now, but with the publication of his first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and a few recent stories, he's appeared at the vanguard of a trend within science fiction that's so bleeding-edge it doesn't even have a stupid nickname yet. (Singularitypunk anyone? How about PostHumanism?) Doctorow and a few others (notably his sometime-collaborator Charles Stross) are writing fun-loving yet seriously extrapolative attempts to follow the rapidly-accelerating curve of technology into a technological singularity -- and maybe out the other side.
If you don't know what I'm talking about when I say "singularity," try reading this paper by Vernor Vinge, the man who coined the term. Basically, the singularity "is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules" -- where human life changes to such an extent that it is not recognizably "human life" as previously defined. In a technological singularity, sophisticated technologies like nanotech, biotech, life-extension, and human-level machine intelligence would transform life completely.
Doctorow won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2000 after a flurry of short story publications in the late '90s, but I think it's fair to say he's recently taken his work to a new level, writing with greater passion and sophistication than before. His love for technology and his dedication to defending the use of same is evident -- he works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and his blog BoingBoing is the place where many people (including me) first learn about emerging technologies, and the legal issues surrounding them. For examples of his recent singularity-exploring short stories -- available free with but a mouse-click! -- I recommend "0wnz0red" at Salon.com and "Jury Service," a collaboration with Charles Stross, at Sci Fiction.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Doctorow's work is one of the main reasons I still read science fiction, so I looked forward to his first novel with great anticipation. The simple verdict? It's good. A fast, funny, smart, clever book which entertains so well that it's only upon reflection that its surprising sophistication and depths become evident.
The world of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is that of the Bitchun Society, a post-scarcity economy where money doesn't exist and reputation (or "whuffie") is everything. In this world, no one has to die -- they can always restore their mind into a cloned body from a back-up, though if you're not careful about saving regularly, you might wind up with an old version of yourself that lacks recently acquired knowledge and wisdom. The resource-based economy is a thing of the past, and all the basic essentials of life are available for the asking. What, then, do people work for? For reputation points, which allow you to implement your cool ideas, and for fun, and for satisfaction. This may sound like a utopia, but there's plenty of opportunity for conflict.
Most of the action takes place at Florida's Disney World, which is no longer the flagship theme park of a giant corporation, but a wonderland run by several groups of volunteer ad-hocs, all striving to make their rides the best. After all, if visitors to the park like a ride, they'll give the people running it more whuffie, and that's what you need to get anything beyond the basic essentials of life. Our likable narrator Jules is just past his 100th birthday (though he doesn't look it, since he's in a much younger body) and into his third career, working as a crowd-flow specialist at the Haunted Mansion in the park. The Haunted Mansion hasn't changed much from its original form -- more refinements than revisions -- because why change something that already works so well? Jules's girlfriend and fellow ad-hoc volunteer Lil is a Disney World native, born long after Jules, and while he can still remember a time when people died and lived in poverty, Lil can't, and that generation gap inevitably strains their relationship. Things are further complicated when Jules's old friend Dan shows up, looking like hell and all-but-whuffieless. Dan used to have more whuffie than almost anyone else -- he was a sort of post-singularity missionary, traveling the globe, convincing the Luddites and traditionalists to join the Bitchun Society -- but he's fallen on hard times of late, and needs Jules's help.
Then a new, high-tech crew moves into the park, taking over the Hall of Presidents. They get rid of the quaint animatronics and replace them with direct brain-interfaces, so that visitors to the park can actually become Lincoln or Washington. Their modifications are a big hit, and their whuffie goes through the roof. Jules begins to suspect that the new crew, run by a strong-willed and ambitious woman named Debra, has designs on the Haunted Mansion, and he's horrified by the prospect of seeing that venerable old ride transformed into a brain-interface experience. Debra insists that her crew has no such plans -- but then someone murders Jules, and (once he's restored from a back-up), Jules is certain it was Debra. Dan, Lil, and the rest of the Haunted Mansion ad-hoc aren't so sure.
Much of the plot concerns Jules's attempt to find out who murdered him and why, but there's plenty of other stuff going on -- the rather radical changes in the relationship among Dan, Lil, and Jules, for one thing, and plenty of tantalizing glimpses of the world of the Bitchun Society (including a marvelous flashback chapter about Jules's time in orbit and his marriage to a woman named Zoya -- functionally-immortal characters can have lots of backstory). While there's plenty of emphasis on the tech and the social extrapolations, the characters are well-realized and complex. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a slim book by today's standards, but Doctorow manages to create a fully-realized and very unusual world within its pages, peopled by likable characters, and absolutely crammed with ideas. If there was any doubt, this book proves that Doctorow is a writer to watch, and I'm looking forward to his second novel, Eastern Standard Tribe, due from Tor in 2003.
Want to read the novel right now? You're in luck -- Doctorow and his publisher have made it available for free download, in its entirety, in a number of formats. Or, if you just want a quick taste, the good people at The Infinite Matrix have posted an excerpt. This is one of the books people will be talking about all year, a stylish and sleek debut that will be remembered. Read it.
Copyright © 2003 Tim Pratt
Tim Pratt lives and writes in the East Bay in California. He's an assistant editor at Locus magazine, and edits Star*Line, the journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. His story "Little Gods" from Strange Horizons is on the final Nebula ballot this year. Tim's previous contributions to Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. Visit his website for much more.