Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

by hetzer

Full disclosure: I’ve never been to Disneyland or Disney World.  Honestly, that’s fine with me, I don’t feel deprived or have any remote desire to rectify this.  It does, however, mean that I have one fewer way to connect with Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  Doctorow either loves him some Disney or he’s got some real stones, because setting a debut sci-fi novel in Disney World, even future Disney World, seems like an…um…interesting choice.

More power to him, because he mostly pulls it off.  In the world of tomorrow, death has been cured by means of complete mental backups and quick-grown clones, so as long as you back up frequently, death is little more than a mild inconvenience.  Despite sounding like a lecture from your wild-haired IT guy, Doctorow manages to spin this single technological advance into a number of creative plot points and background touches.  For example, some groups of people refuse to take advantage of humanity’s new immortality (the “Bitchun Society”), but nobody’s worried about them, because eventually they all die off and the problem solves itself.  Anyway, immortal humanity finds itself with a lot of time on its hands; many “deadhead”, or go into cryogenic fugue, with instructions to wake periodically to see if anything interesting is happening.  Others pursue multiple doctorates, and still others go to Disney World.

Again, I’ve never been there, so I can’t vouch for the fidelity of Doctorow’s descriptions.  I think we can take it as read, though, that the technology used in almost all attractions is far beyond even the Disney Corporation’s reach; the latest innovation is to push memories and experiences directly into the visitor’s mind to create a fully immersive experience.  This is pretty damn cool, but it doesn’t sit well with our narrator, who works in the Haunted Mansion and likes it the way it is, thank you very much.  I wouldn’t think that a novel about a hostile takeover of a theme park attraction could be interesting, but then I also didn’t think anybody could turn MMORPG gold-farming into a gripping read, and I was wrong.  It’s to Doctorow’s credit that he accomplishes this, mainly by getting the reader to identify with main character Julius’ overwhelming desire to keep just one thing free from the technological rat race, to not fix what ain’t broke.  It also helps that Doctorow doesn’t try to go into great depth with the motivations of any of the characters; the PDF version of this text clocks in at a brisk 115 pages or so, leaving little room for extraneous detail.  He does throw in little nuggets, almost as asides, to aid verisimilitude and keep the reader’s interest as well; characters casually smoke crack as others might smoke tobacco, for example, and doctors still exist but can’t do much outside of the “just die and restore from backup” paradigm.  It’s the little things, after all, that make the setting.

All in all, it’s a fun, light, and innocuous little read.  Certainly, after a steady, heavy diet of Herbert and Mieville, it’s kinda nice to flip leisurely through this kind of confection.  I see little subtext here; probably the most subversive thing about the book is that it was released under the Creative Commons license (like all of Doctorow’s works) and is therefore free to download and distribute.  (Obviously, if you want a paper copy, you need to buy it).  This was a very bold step for a new author to take, but it seems to have paid off for him since he’s released several more under the same license.  Anyway, bottom line is, Disneyphiles will probably adore it, but it stands up well for the rest of us too.  It’s good, light summer fun reading, so next time you’re sacked out in your hammock with your iPad or whatever in easy reach, you can do much worse than to WiFi this puppy over and give it a go.