Story: It’s the future, and the human race has given up the habit of dying, or, for that matter, the habit of killing over resources. Everything is plentiful because much of the human experience has shifted into the virtual realm; after death, people can be restored from their most recent backup brain-dump, their copied consciousness injected into a rapidly grown clone body. Money is a historical curiosity, replaced by “Whuffie,” a constantly-updated “feedback rating” given by others to reflect on one’s deeds and words. Julius, a resident of Disney’s Magic Kingdom (whose rides and attractions have each been taken up by “ad hoc” organizations who live or die by the popularity and collective Whuffie of their attraction), works on the Haunted Mansion and Hall of Presidents displays with his girlfriend Lil, who carries some weight in the “ad-hocracy.” When Julius’ old friend, an unconventional, somewhat rebellious sort named Dan, turns up with no Whuffie and talking about suicide – an unheard-of act in a world where people routinely “deadhead” until events are interesting enough for them to come out of cryogenic sleep – he insists than Dan move in with he and Lil and take a job at the Magic Kingdom to build up his Whuffie again. When Julius is murdered, however – also a very rare event – he is rebooted into a new clone body from his most recent backup, and his life and relationships begin to unravel as he obsesses over who killed him.
Review: Quite the heady futurist trip, “Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom” is very much a story of the Now. With Whuffie serving as a kind of eBay feedback rating of the soul, and a so-called meritocracy still boiling down to little more than a popularity contest, “Down And Out” takes plenty of “social networking” internet concepts and applies them to the bigger picture to show how these things might work – or might not. At times, it all almost feels like life-by-way-of-an-internet-message-board, with all of the attendant petty disagreements, blatant dramatic cries for attention or pity, back-biting and bitchiness.
The story really revolves around Julius, Dan and Lil, a relationship which becomes an awkward triangle as the book progresses. In some ways, both Dan and Julius take turns playing the part of the “noble savage” – i.e. John from Huxley’s “Brave New World” – in a slow, painful role reversal. Julius’ eventual disconnect from the wired society is played, in a few places, as a revelation to him, but in the end it’s mostly a vast inconvenience, as the rest of the world has moved beyond having to assimilate information via hardcopy, or – gasp! – talking to other people verbally/vocally rather than firing instant messages back and forth via a retinal heads-up display.
Cory Doctorow moves things along at a brisk pace, dropping in background as needed, though sometimes it’s the stuff whose backstory he doesn’t get into that drives me crazy. Many times along the way, he detours from the main story to examine the social and societal implications of the technology wired into everyone’s bodies, but other things – such as Lil firing up a crack pipe as often as a character might light up a cigarette in a detective novel – are just there with no explanation, and I’m not sure what to infer from these things. Other touches, such as calling this technological epoch the “Bitchun Society,” almost seem to be trying too hard to be clever.
Overall, it’s an interesting book filled with interesting concepts, even if not all of them are necessarily followed through on.
Author: Cory Doctorow