This is my first ever review of anything. I don’t know why I decided to start now, with this book, but I did. So there we go.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was Cory Doctorow’s first novel. Written in 2003, it was (according to Wikipedia) the first novel to be released under a creative commons license. Which is very cool.
Aside from having written 12 novels to date, Cory is a co-editor of Boing Boing, fellow of the Electronic Freedom Foundation and founder of the Open Rights Group.
If you submit the text from many of my blog posts (e.g. “How is my blog going”) to the I Write Like website, it’ll tell you that I write like Cory Doctorow.
A quick summary
This future history book takes place in the 22nd century, mostly in Walt Disney World. Disney World is run by rival adhocracies, each dedicated to providing the best experience to the park’s visitors and competing for the Whuffie the guests offer.
(From the book’s Wikipedia page)
The book is set in a future where:
- your brain can be backed up and re-loaded into cloned bodies, effectively meaning you can live forever (losing small amounts of memory between your most recent backup and your death).
- money has been replaced by “Whuffie”, a live score based on your reputation and esteem with others. Whuffie works like money, in that it’s easier to get stuff if you have a lot of it, and people also judge you based on your Whuffie.
- everyone has a built-in HUD that displays information in real-time, including information about those they meet.
You can read the plot summary on Wikipedia.
Right from the start it’s clear Cory has put a lot of effort into the technical details of the world. There are believable, technical solutions to death and money, and you can see how this world could easily be a logical future of the world we currently live in. We develop the ability to back-up a brain and re-insert it into a body; we are constantly connected to a highly-optimised version of the internet, which is feeding us relevant information all the time.
I quite like the idea behind “Whuffie” (although the word itself sounds ridiculous):
.. Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace. By measuring the thing that money really represented – your personal capital with your friends and neighbors – you more accurately gaged your success.
The mechanism by which Whuffie is attributed or how it is spent is never explained - we are just asked to trust that it basically succeeds at equating to the sum of your reputation, and it is what makes you rich. This is Cory’s way of creating a system for a pure meritocracyy.
Interestingly, however, Cory doesn’t revel in this technically ornate world he’s created. We have to learn about the details incidentally as we go through the story. And despite the myriad differences between this future world and our own, the novel is written with a modern, colloquial and informal voice (Cory’s standard writing voice), making the world and the characters seem very down-to-earth and familiar. Apart from the technical differences, from the feel of the characters and the relationships, the story could be set in the present day. And that is important: it helps us to feel at home in this otherwise very strange world.
This means that the novel is doing two things side-by-side. It is on the face of it a fairly mundane storyline about an un-remarkable member of this future society in the fairly uninspiring (sorry Cory) setting of Disney World. But at the same time this apparent storyline is simply a device for exploring the strengths and weaknesses of this potentially utopian future.
And that is the really interesting part. It explores the inherent problems with immortality, and the approaches that people might have to it in the real-world. It explores how a purer meritocracy might differ from our current capitalist society (spoiler: not much) and the potential weaknesses of that system.
But unfortunately, ultimately a novel needs to follow a storyline. And this is where, in my opinion, it falls down. Jules is not very likeable. In fact, for most of the novel, he’s a bit of a douche-bag. As the story is told from Jules’ perspective, it’s rather important that we can engage with him to engage with the story, and I found it a little too hard to do that.
This all meant that at the end of the book I was left with a slightly unsatisfied feeling; almost a dystopian feeling. But I certainly encountered some interesting ideas along the way.
Down and Out is the second book by Cory Doctorow that I’ve read. The first was Little Brother. I would definitely recommend Little Brother over Down and Out - it is a longer and more mature work, and it succeeds in being a more engaging read. This is not entirely surprising as Cory was 5 years and 5 novels more experienced when he wrote Little Brother.
Down and Out is nonetheless a very interesting exploration of a possible future and future technology, and will definitely interest fans of the author. And it is a very respectable first novel.