Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom - Cory Doctorow

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Cory Doctorow
ISBN: 0765304368 (Amazon link)

This short novel seems to be receiving a lot of hype at the moment so I picked up a copy. I'm aware of the author as he's well-known for this work with the EFF, and for the daily divertissement that is Boing Boing. Well, well-known within geeky circles.

This novel is also freely available under the Creative Commons license from the author's web-site.

This free download is getting a lot of amazed press at the moment, mainly in contrast to the ever more restrictive DRM being forced upon us by the music industry, but I'm not so impressed. After all, Sterling's The Hacker Crackdown has been freely available for 5? years now. In addition, I'm just past the "Whoa, cool! I can read this on my Palm!" stage. I mean, I have e-books on my iPod, but I'm never going to be convinced paper isn't the epitome of useability for this particular app. (Although a grep would be nice; paper to read, on-line to refer to?).

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a cyberpunk novel set in Disneyland. It's a near-future tale, with little really impressive tech on display, although the Bitchun Society has cured death, mastered nanotech and seems pervaded with net connectivity. In short, it's a very Sterling-esque novel about a post-Scarcity economy.

Everything is based around a person's Whuffie - why this term I do not know - which is what we casually call Karma, and indeed that's the term used for reputation points in some extant versions of reputation systems (Beware, trollish ). High Whuffie means you have the respect of your peers, and so can have a nicer and more influential life. There's little discussion on how this works in detail; I liked the left- vs right- handed whuffie idea (one is respect from people you don't agree with, the other is respect from people more like you), but what stops me allocating, say, one million whuffie points to you? Indeed, why allocate anyone whuffie? How do I get Whuffie to allocate? Etc

The other main thread is the idea of ad-hocs. Ad-hocracies are basically the loose idea of communal communities (bad wording, but the idea should be clear) doing democracy the way it was intended. The whole thing is supposed to be a meritocracy, but again I have some reservations that one leads to the other. In short, most people are stupid, and many smart (or capable, or unusually skilled people) are arseholes who don't play nice with others. We don't get that much exploration of why this system works vs the other alternatives. I just don't think people work this way - in the present day there are sufficient primitive cultures around, in comparison with the novel's culture, where we can see forms of government radically outside the North American norm. For example, earlier today I watched a news item on witches in African villages being tried and forgiven by the village chief in front of the assembled populace. Much was made of the various power roles within the community. There is room for a lot more discussion of the stability of the system; I suspect there are several ways such an ad-hoc system could fall out and many of them look more like Lord of the Flies than enlightened New Age communes. Some of the other stable states might not be so desirable, or without cost to move away from - a tyrant might dominate by force of will, and while pulling him down can be done by the community as always throughout history that won't happen without bloodshed.

I seem to be a "don't like this bit" rant here so let's close off with my other main concerns - this is post-Scarcity economy and the author off-handedly tells us that energy is free, and that food/clothing/whatever can be gotten from communcal devices for free. Cheating. This is cheating. Postulating such a radical change to the world without discussing how it works, how it came about, the impact it'd have, how everyone gets access to one, how it doesn't violate physical laws. Bah.

I like the idea of post-Scarcity economies and find them interesting, but the fact remains that much of the plot of the book was rendered uninteresting to me as I saw no reason for anyone to covet what the heroes were playing with. With free energy and matter conversion they could have anything they wanted; travel to the stars is thrown in later on for just converted holdouts from the Bitchun society.

Last rant - Disneyland. It has no hold on me. I suspect it has no hold on many Europeans. (How is the French version doing by the way? Still limping along?) I suspect many Americans view it differently than the author of Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom. I can see how it makes an interesting setting for the novel, and there is a lot of scope for talk of illusions, for the boundary between life and art, for the impact of tech on entertainment and life etc. But it didn't work for me. The author has a clear love for the subject, and his enthusiasm lights up several sections of the book, but in the end it all seemed rather parochial to me - especially when the hero feels that much of the new attractions could be experienced by anyone anywhere by the magic of net connections and remote tech. Still, the novel had to be set somewhere and I may be biased against Disneyland-the-idea and being unduly harsh on the novel.

So, the novel, cyberpunk post-Scarcity novel playing with the ideas of trust cultures and ad-hocs. But what is it about? It's about our hero, his hero, and his girlfriend. It's a love story among these three characters and it involves a power struggle against a different adhoc for control of parts of Disneyland. Along the way tragic mistakes are made, characters learn and grow and despite all the geek trappings this is a book about relationships.

Jules is just over a century old, and though he acts like a spoiled and rather uninteresting child with no grasp of history or culture beyond the late C20th norm, he has

"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."

His hero and best friend, arguably his platonic same sex love interest, is Dan.

"Dan was in his second or third blush of youth when I met him,
sometime late-XXI. He was a rangy cowpoke, apparent twenty-five
or so, all raw-hide squint-lines and sunburned neck, boots worn thin
and infinitely comfortable"

The last main character is Jule's girlfriend, just out of her teens and second-generation Disney World, having grown up there as a Cast Member.

The plot proper starts when Jules wakes up after being murdered, being restored from backup of course. He's convinced that he was killed by a rival adhoc who have moved in and changed one of the other attractions, and whom he's convinced want to move in on his attraction too.

Along the way we have to deal with people's rise and fall, from high-whuffie to down and out as mistakes are made, and the more emotive issue of deciding when enough is enough and you want to finally Die, or when you want to just give it up and restore to a long ago backup when your life was less complex and less painful. Sadly, on the downside much of the story action is generated by Jules being REALLY STUPID at certain points.

Oddly, given my rant above, I do like this novel. I think the central character driven story had some fine moments, and I thought the writing was taut and well handled. The plot zips along and the clear, clean prose ensures that for once I was finished a book much earlier than I had expected. It's a joy to see someone hitting the short novel bang on the head without compromising on ideas content. (Course, the publishers probably want a trilogy if this sells well...)

As noted above, this is a very Sterling-esque book, and I'd advise fans of Sterling or Gibson to pick this up. Another obvious influence is Neal Stephenson, and there's a nice namecheck for Hiro Protagonist. Recommended if you like any of the above. Recommended with reservations noted above for general SF fans who want something with a zeigeisty feel.

Overall though, I don't get the feeling that I read anything other than a geek book by a very promising young author - I suspect that this novel will age badly, and that this will be due entirely to the lack of exploration of what happens when the two key concepts, so far only applied in the rarified fields of software development and on-line forums, collide with the worst that nasty, venal, corrupt and lazy human nature throws at them. And the free energy as a background is still cheating. (*) I would have much preferred to see the seamy underside of this system set on the fringes of the Bitchun Society, where certain things, like say a place to sleep due to overpopulation, are still Scarce. To paraphrase the old saying, when everyone can have whatever they want, no-one has anything worth wanting.

(*) I let Banks off with it as he states that he's writing a utopia, and then playing with it.

Posted: Sat - March 15, 2003 at 01:24 AM