October 5, 2007

Tales from the Completist: "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom," by Cory Doctorow

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
By Cory Doctorow
Tor / ISBN: 0-765-30436-8

Okay, so it's finally time; time for me to finally make my way through the complete works of cutting-edge science-fiction author Cory Doctorow. After all, he's one of the four editors of my favorite website of all time, the profoundly unique pop-culture journal Boing Boing; and Doctorow's also a big champion of the exact political issues CCLaP cares about as well, including copyright reform, the elimination of so-called "Digital Rights Management" (or DRM) malware, the importance of do-it-yourself artists and the like. And besides, Doctorow also puts his money where his mouth is; that he's arguably* the most famous artist yet to offer digital versions of his projects for free download, meaning that a person can technically read his entire body of work without spending a dime, if one wants. All of these things mean that I should've become a completist of Doctorow a long time ago, and am in fact a little ashamed that I'm not; then add the fact that this thirtysomething's ouevre is not yet that large to begin with (only three novels, two story collections, and one book of essays), and I now really have no excuse.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow

I've decided, then, to tackle Doctorow's work in the order it was written; and that brings us at first to his explosive debut novel, 2003's "gonzo sci-fi" tale Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which has been heralded by not only critics but also peers and fans since almost the first day of its release. And indeed, now that I've read it myself, I understand why; because it turns out that Doctorow is not just a great cultural essayist, not only a dedicated technology activist, but in fact a legitimate creative genius as well, able to craft a story out of the dense tendrils of theoretical science and economics that nonetheless has a huge humanistic heart at the core of it, not to mention a pretty large amount of sincerely laugh-out-loud humor too. To start with, for example, the novel is set in a far-future society where scarcity is no longer a survival issue; where a form of free energy has been discovered and is now in use, where replicator-type machines can now create food and clothing from scratch, where even death has been eliminated through the dual perfection of both cloning and the digitization of consciousness. (So in other words, in the world of Down and Out, people can have their entire brain and all its memories "backed up" regularly to a computer system, which is then "uploaded" into a new body whenever the old one dies.)

Among many other profound changes to society, this has led to the elimination of money in the future; but as humanity quickly realized when this first occurred, it was actually money that motivated most human beings to be kind and productive towards their fellow humans in the first place. (A small example -- being nice to your co-workers increases your chances of getting a raise, while being a prick to them increases your chances of getting fired. Now multiply this by several thousand other situations and several billion other people.) The solution, according to Doctorow, was to create an entirely new system of currency for a post-scarcity world, one based on a person's reputation alone; called "Whuffies," they are basically digital "merits" and "demerits" that citizens are constantly giving and taking away from other citizens. Be nice to your neighbor, for example, and you might get a couple of Whuffies from them sent your way; create a movie that a lot of people enjoy, and you're suddenly receiving millions of Whuffies from complete strangers. The amount of Whuffies a person has, then, is a public figure and can be instantly seen by any other person, because of humanity at this point basically having internet access directly in their brains; not only do most people determine how they think of you based on your Whuffie score, but it is also the way to access the few things left in this society that are truly scarce (like a good table at a restaurant, front-row tickets at a theatre, etc).

This is what I mean by Doctorow being so brilliant; that he's able to take all these disparate theoretical subjects, stuff usually only discussed in dry dissertations by PhD candidates, and not only combine them all into one intriguing action-based plot, but also explore the humanity behind all these theories and especially if they were ever put into practice. For example, Doctorow is quick to point out that in a post-scarcity world, not everyone would participate in a reputation-based economy; that there would be plenty of people happy to just accept their free basic food, their free basic house, their free basic clothes, and spend their lives basically hanging out at cafes or watching television, not really caring what anyone else thinks of them. And this is perfectly okay in a post-scarcity world, Doctorow further argues; that in a world where technology has eliminated the need for anyone to be a "productive member of society" anymore, some people will simply choose not to be, while those who still make the effort are now doing so merely for the extra benefits it affords them (like companionship, camaraderie, a feeling of accomplishment, even better food and other traditional consumerist-style perks).

And if this weren't enough, Doctorow then adds the master stroke of setting the entire book at a far-future Walt Disney World in Florida, hundreds of years after the collapse of the Disney corporation itself (indeed, hundreds of years after the collapse of all corporations), where an "ad-hocracy" of thousands of individuals has swooped in to voluntarily run the park themselves, with it turning out there being lots of humans who still need this emotional link back to humanity's roots in order to feel human in the first place. In a world where one's very body can be carelessly discarded at a moment's notice (with many people in this future society, for example, who will commit suicide at the onset of a cold, just so they can start over with a healthy body later that afternoon), turns out that there's something special about the continuity of the old Disney rides, a reassurance about humanity's permanence in all those creaky old animatronics that are still being lovingly maintained.

If you want any further proof of how strong a debut novel Down and Out is, consider this -- that I've now written almost a thousand words on the subject, and still haven't had time to mention one thing about the plot itself. Which of course is partly a shame, because the sheer lunacy and entertainment value of the storyline is a major reason as well to love this book -- turns out that the entire thing is a murder mystery on top of everything else (with the victim of course able to investigate his own murder), with some mad-scientist elements thrown in for good measure, and with a minor love triangle complicating things as well. But then again, that's also a sign of a tremendously great book, when a critic can find all kinds of fascinating things to say about it besides spending half the review simply retelling the plot. It's been a real shock to me this week, to tell you the truth, learning just how genius this book is; I mean, I've always understood that Doctorow is an award-winning novelist, that he's a highly popular one as well, but I guess it never occurred to me that he'd be such a mindblowing one too, especially considering that he's arguably more famous as a political activist than as an author. (For those who don't know, Doctorow was actually raised as an activist by two Trotskyist public teachers in Toronto; he's done work on the administrative end of such groups as Greenpeace since he was literally a child.) I was blown away by Down and Out, to be frank, at a point when I was merely expecting it to get me warmed up for Doctorow's "mature" work; I can't wait now to see where his other books might take me.

*There are of course a growing amount of highly popular artists these days making some of their work available as free digital downloads; just this week, for example, the insanely popular indie-rock band Radiohead announced that they're going to let their fans pay whatever they want for a digital copy of their new album, including "nothing" if that's what they choose. Doctorow, however, offers free digital copies of each and every full-length project he's ever done, which definitely makes him the most famous artist now to do so.

Read even more about Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:10 PM, October 5, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |