Sometimes Things are Free for a Reason

Down and Out in the Magic KingdomI finally finished Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingom last night.  It took me forever but I was determined to get it done before going to bed and I accomplished that simplistic goal.

I wanted to like this book.  It had plenty to pull me including a Sci-Fi future world, a setting of which I am very familiar, and a price tag approaching $0.00.  Sadly, none of this helped me enjoy the book which was at best mildly interesting.

The novel takes place in the 22nd century in a world where death can be avoided by backing up one’s conscious self and restoring the backup to a new body as desired or on an as needed basis.  Of course it wouldn’t be the future if money hadn’t been eliminated.  What it does have is the concept of Whuffie.  Whuffie is a measure of how much respect (and conversely, disdain) people have for you.  It substitutes for currency in that it is important to have a high Whuffie score if one wants access to what few, scarce items are available in the “Bitchun” society.  The Bitchun society is what has become the dominate form of social interaction in the new world.  Strict political systems have given way to “ad-hocs” that run everything including what used to be corporations.  So what the society of the novel lives without material wants, without death, and really only minor conflict.  Kinda makes it hard to develop dramatic tension doesn’t it?

The plot of the novel follows Julius, and old-timer by our measurements  only 100 years old, but just another citizen of the Bitchun society.  Julius has experienced much in his century of life but has found his way to Disney World in Orlando and a coveted position in the ad-hoc that runs The Haunted Mansion.  All of the ad-hocs that run the different rides workd hard to make the best experience possible in order to grow their Whuffie.  Julius is a master of queuing and has turned moving guests through the Mansion into a science.  By the time of the novel, Julius has tweaked the Mansion about as far as it can go and is faced with a threat to the ride in the form of Debra, the leader of the group that is currently running the Hall of Presidents.  Debra is a wonder in the ride renovation world using advanced VR systems that basically beam images of the ride into the guests mind.  Julius, a purist at heart, rails against Debra’s ideas in an attempt to keep the history of the Mansion intact.  This sets up our conflict and the meat of the book.

What we really have is a fictional representation of a very old argument.  Should Disney rides be updated or changed in an effort to keep them relevant or is there something special about the original designs.  Strip away all the Sci-Fi trappings and this is ultimately what the book is addressing.  On a much deeper level I guess there are some statements about technological advancement and its value to society, a very common if not over-used Sci-Fi theme.

Like I said, I wanted to love this book.  I should have loved it.  Although I am not a Disney geek, I enjoy the park well enough.  I will be taking my second trip to the Orlando park this year in about a month which will make it my 8th or 9th lifetime visit.  Not a heavy visitor by any measurement but I would guess I have been there more than most.  I am, however, a very big fan of the Haunted Mansion.  In my opinion it is the most fully realized experience in the park.  It was thus with great excitement then that I picked up a Sci-Fi novel (a genre close to my heart) that centered around this great attraction.  As much as I enjoyed the little call-outs to fans of the Mansion and other Disney attractions, overall the book left me flat.  I guess that is why it took me so long to read what is a very short book.

Doctorow’s characters are very one dimensional and very cookie cutter.  There is the good guy, the bad guy, the good guy’s friend, the girlfriend, and other secondary characters that move the story along but provide very little depth.  The parts that are interesting, including the brief introduction to the birth of the Bitchun society are painfully short and end right when they are getting interesting.  I wanted to find out more about the evolution of the new society but only got little tidbits here and their.  Much of the motivations of the characters were very superficial and lacked depth and many things were left unexplained.  For example, in a world where experiences can be downloaded, what is the attraction of decades old mechanical rides?  More detrimental to the novel, however, is Doctorow’s obvious geek love for the Mansion.  He seems more concerned with the how and why of the Mansion upgrades and not so much what this means to the story.  Leaving the reader to interpret the message of the book is fine but you at least have to lead the reader to your idea.  In geeking out over a future Disney World Doctorow misses many opportunities to really say something profound about the inevitable march of progress.

By the end of the novel one gets the idea that eventually we have to let go of the past.  Also, with Julius’s decision to not refresh himself, for a while at least, I get the idea that maybe Doctorow is saying that there is something important about experiences including the bad ones.  That memories, all of them, are important in our growth as intelligent beings and that maybe the ability to wipe them out causes us to lose a bit of our humanity.  Doctorow just doesn’t give the reader enough to make these inferences.  The novel, to me at least, seems to be the first act of a much larger story and that Julius’s journey is far from over.  I’d like to see the narrative developed further but Doctorow has gone on to other things and other works.  As a first novel it is possible that Doctorow was sort of working out his ideas on the page and this work is a prototype for future, more exhaustive studies of technology and humanity.  I am just not sure if I am intrigued enough to try the author again.

In the final review, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a serviceable first novel but is very light in its treatment of the major themes.  Disney geeks will get a kick out of the setting but hard core Sci-Fi fans might want to pass.  The novel is short on drama and long on Disney affection.  It’s not necessarily a bad book but not memorable.  Doctorow is a heavy promoter of open copyright and makes the book free for download at his website.  “Free” makes my problems with the novel much easier to accept.  It is a relatively short book and is a quick read if you can stay interested.  Try it out if you are looking for something unique and please let me know what you think if you try it out.


Sometimes Things are Free for a Reason — 4 Comments

  1. I read this several years ago and I liked it a lot. I don’t believe, as you do, that the main premise is “Should Disney rides be updated or changed in an effort to keep them relevant or is there something special about the original designs?”
    To me, this is a book about a post-apocalyptic society and how they survive that happens to be set in a unique environment. What I liked was the details of how the members interacted.

  2. No, you’re right it is not the main premise but that suggestion, theme, idea is there. I think Doctorow is also saying something about how humans have to think of something as their own. In the absence of money something will spring up to take its place. Along with that is the statement that even in a virtual paradise man is still driven to seek out challenges.
    My main criticism of the book is that everything is very superficial there is more to be said here but it just never comes out. There are some great ideas that never get fleshed out while some things get way too much attention. The characters are only developed enough to keep the plot going and interesting threads are abandoned before they really get going. I think at maybe 400-500 pages this book could have really had an impact.
    All that aside, it is still a good read and can inspire some interesting discussions.

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