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Sunday, December 08, 2013

Doctorow has created a fascinating society, where death has been "cured" (just make sure you have regular backups so you can be restored to a clone if anything happens!), the economy is based on the esteem of others (their money-equivalent is called "whuffie"), and things are run be adhocracies. Unfortunately, the characters and plot don't quite hold up to the promise of that amazing setup. Julius is a guy with multiple degrees, who's written symphonies, and died a few times - and usually goes back to Disney World to reboot himself; now he's living at Disney and working on a crowd-control thesis with potential application to the wider world, which is getting a bit crowded due to people not dying. While he's there, a conflict develops with how to renovate or redo the park, and Julius takes things a little bit personally and obsessively.

One of the most interesting characters is Dan, a friend of Julius who had acted as a "missionary" - leaving the amazing world of the "Bitchun society" to go and live with the holdouts who haven't yet been won over, slowly seducing them with the medicine and technology. But eventually he runs out of places to go (after he converts the last holdouts), and someone who chooses a challenge like that may not quite fit in with the mainstream society. He shows up broke and needing Julius' help - and at first I thought maybe he was the one who's "down and out" from the title. But eventually I figured it out it's Julius, and he will fall much farther before the story ends.

The story includes what should be a fascinating and compelling idea, the notion of trying to solve your own murder. Julius is shot and the woman disappears quickly, in a way that indicates it was intentional and premeditated. He's convinced that a particular a group is behind it - the ones who are redoing the Hall of Presidents with latest technology, building in an amazing gestalt, but that Julius feels takes away from the magic of Disney or any need to physically come to the park. This conflict inspires Julius and his group to update the Haunted Mansion in a different way. But in his paranoia and a fool-hardy attempt to sabotage the other group, he ends up messing his own internal system - he doesn't reliably have net access and he can't make backups. But he doesn't want to lose the time on the rebuild or lose his memories of that period, so he keeps forging ahead.

Towards the end, you come to understand that the conceit of the story as written novel - which would surely be an archaic form in the Bitchun society, as something written down instead of a backup or gestalt - is precisely because he is a man living without backups, and so he has to write out his memories longhand, which is really kind of a great framing device in a way.

I started reading when I was making a weekend trip to Disney. It might be more fun for people who are big fans of Disney and the Haunted Mansion, for a sort of weird, alternate-future glimpse behind the scenes.

Side note: I read the ebook, and I kind of really love the fact that Doctorow released it under a Creative Commons license and makes the ebook versions freely available.

Title:Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Author:Cory Doctorow
Date published:2003
Genre:Science Fiction
Number of pages:208


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