Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (TOR, 2003)

Some years ago, a reviewer for Green Man at the time (Chuck Lipsig) and Jack Zipes, the noted folklorist, had a rather spirited debate about what Disney has done to popular culture. Chuck, who is from Gainesville near Disney, really, really likes that company. Jack holds quite the opposite sentiment. As Chuck noted in his review of Zipes' Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry, "I am not, I suspect, the intended audience for Jack Zipes's Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry. Zipes is solidly on the political left, bemoaning the capitalist culture industry, especially Disney. I'm a pro-laissez faire celebrator of consumer culture and, specifically, a Disney fan." I am neither a Disney fan nor a critic of that now dominant cultural institution; I like some things they have done, such as The Gargoyle series and Hook, their film version of Peter & Wendy. I wholeheartedly dislike most of their bastardizations of popular legends and myths, but they are hardly the only offenders in that area! What is important is that Disney has become the cultural equivalent of a cold virus — you'll get infected by it even if you don't want it. I've seen the presence of Disney in the remotest parts of Asia as easily as I can find it in New York City. Where Civilization is, Disney is!

So suppose that one day, not so far in the future, Disney World goes out of business as a corporation. That indeed the entire reality of capitalism (small "c" style) ceases to exist because both unlimited energy and life without end have come to be commonplace? As the protaganist, Jules, says in his introduction to Down and Out, "I lived long enough to see the cure for death; to see the rise of the Bastion Society, to learn ten languages; to compose three symphonies; to realize my boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World; to see the death of the workplace and of work."

Now if you're looking for a Green Man motif here as regards the story, you won't find it. What connects this story of Disney World to GMR is that personal or group success in Doctorow's imagined future is defined by the reputation of individuals and the "ad hoc" groups they are part of. These Ad Hoc (sic) groups, thousands of them apparently, are now running Disney World after the collapse of the Old Order. Doctorow doesn't really explain how this society came to be. He just drops in details like this: "Her name was Lil, and she was second-generation Disney World, her parents being among the original ad-hocracy that took over the management of Liberty Square and Tom Sawyer Island. She was, quite literally, raised in Walt Disney World and it showed" into the story to give you an idea of how alien this world is to ours. It compares favorably to the Ringworld that Larry Niven created with his Known Space tales, or to the City that is the locale of Emma Bull's novel Bone Dance; it's both our world and not our world. Unlimited resources in Doctorow's society are very much like what Google, with its ranking of Web sites called up by search topic, has done in our digital society. Green Man Review thrives in part based on our reputation as a site which Google often ranks first in its search results! And that, my dear readers, is the essence of a reputation-based society.

Lest you think that I typed the above quotations from the review copy that TOR sent along last week, not at all. In a move that mirrors the theme of his novel — i.e., reputation is the only indication of your personal worth — Cory Doctorow has placed a digital copy of the novel online. Now if it's free, why would anyone buy it when they can simply download it? Good question. Personally, I hate, truly hate, reading more than a few pages online, and I sure as frelling won't read a whole novel this way. But Doctorow has his reasons, and they make sense: "So, whats with this file? Good question. I'm releasing the entire text of this book as a free, freely redistributable e-book. You can download it, put it on a P2P net, put it on your site, e-mail it to a friend, and, if you're addicted to dead trees, you can even print it. Why am I doing this thing? Well, its a long story, but to shorten it up: first-time novelists have a tough row to hoe. Our publishers don't have a lot of promotional budget to throw at unknown factors like us. Mostly, we rise and fall based on word-of-mouth. I'm not bad at word-of-mouth. I have a blog, Boing Boing, where I do a lot of word-of-mouthing. I compulsively tell friends and strangers about things that I like. And telling people about stuff I like is way, way easier if I can just send it to 'em. Way easier."

Now why should you pay hard currency for this book that I didn't pay a frelling penny for? You should buy it from TOR largely because it's the rarest of things in this age of bloated books — i.e., the latest Stephen King or Robert Jordan — in that it's a slim novel, at just over two hundred pages, that works perfectly. There's not a wasted word, not a badly written paragraph. It's a quick read, barely a few hours, but worth the curling up in a quiet corner and savoring. It's nice to actually finish a novel in a relatively short time; one of the reasons I often give up on a novel is that I think that nothing can work when it's seven or eight hundred pages long!

Jules, the aforementioned narrator, is over a century old but looks about forty. He has died several times, but with cloning and a full memory backup that makes sure he is never overdrawn at the Memory Bank. Getting killed, no big deal. The biggest problem that the near-immortals in this utopia face is boredom, big time boredom. So one group has decided to keep one of the centuries-old attractions running, well, as Disney meant it to be. "Ad-hocracy works well, for the most part. Lil's folks had taken over the running of Liberty Square with a group of other interested, compatible souls. They did a fine job, racked up gobs of Whuffie, and anyone who came around and tried to take it over would be so reviled by the guests they wouldn't find a pot to piss in. Or they'd have such a wicked, radical approach that they'd ouster Lil's parents and their pals, and do a better job."

Which raises an interesting question: how does one maintain the idea of tradition in a society where near unlimited resources virtually demand constant innovation? Jules and the group that he's part of are confronted by a group who thinks the Liberty Square attraction is so passe that it should be completely replaced with the latest technology. And it appears they will stop at nothing, as someone assassinates Jules. Though the assassination is only a minor annoyance (he just made a full memory backup), he is really pissed. And a pissed immortal is both a paranoid immortal and a dangerous immortal. In a reputation-dependent economy, and with the help of a sophisticated, real-time network, people accumulate and lose a reputation "currency" called "whuffie." If Jules' competitors will kill to keep the "whuffie" points up, what else will they do?

Cory Doctorow has written a tight, funny novel that extrapolates very nicely from present-day society with its peer-to-peer networks of pirated material, ease-of-access, and blogs. This post-Cyberpunk universe is similar to, but not the same as, the one Bruce Sterling created in his novel, Islands in The Net, which has a sort of "Ad Hoc group" in the Board of Directors that runs Rhizome. After you read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, check out Islands in The Net. I think you'll find some interesting overlaps between the two novels. But do not pick up this novel expecting a cyberpunk-ish future, as some reviewers online suggest it is. I really do wish that reviewers would read novels before writing a review!

[Cat Eldridge]