Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom
Tor / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First
Publication Date: 02-14-2003
208 Pages; $22.95
Date Reviewed: 02-12-03
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2003
Beneath the shiny surface of even the glossiest, most vapid entertainment, there's a huge complex machine that chugs all day and all night just to eke a few laughs out of the audience. The most difficult aspect of any entertainment endeavor is to make what is in reality very complex look very simple. 'Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom' by Cory Doctorow conceals some very complicated thoughts beneath a glossy surface. It's Left Coast, Unix-based cyberpunk, with an Open Source origin. Everybody is logged in, all the time.
Jules is only a century old, but he lives in the post-scarcity, post-death Bitchun Society. He's died four times, but this last death has really cheesed him off. He'd settled into Disney World, tending to the venerable animatronics of the Hall of Presidents and the Haunted Mansion. His death has given a rival faction of ad-hocs the opportunity to revamp the Hall with immersive direct-to-brain 'flash-bakes' that give the guests the illusion of being Washington, Lincoln and others. By the time he's resurrected from a backup, the project is a fait accompli. Jules does not take this kindly, and he doesn't react wisely. Soon, he's gone from the pinnacle of Bitchun Society to the state described in the title of the book.
Doctorow's prose is limpid and very easy to read. 'Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom' goes down a treat, with more than a few laughs and chuckles as readers race through Doctorow's future. This is actually something of a problem as the book begins. When your subject is a character who is all surface in a future that's all surface, then it's a bit hard for readers to connect with the narrator on a visceral level. But there's a method to Doctorow's mildness. As Jules becomes disenfranchised from his own society, he becomes much more accessible to readers in this world. As this plan reveals itself -- and Jules plans unravel -- the reader can't help but become more engaged.
But operating beneath this glossy, enjoyable surface is a very complicated world filled with intelligently conceived advances and retreats. From the contents of a 208 page book, one could excavate more than a few doctoral theses on various aspects of Doctorow's Bitchun Society. For current computer geeks, Doctorow sprinkles his prose with just the right number of Unix-derived terms. For sociologists, Doctorow has constructed a fascinating society where the currency is the respect you receive from those who know you. For futurists, Doctorow has offered up a gleaming utopian vision utterly unlike those of other cyberpunk authors. For anybody who has ever had to backup or restore their computer's files, he offers heaven itself. For all the simplicity and limpidity of the narrative, there's a very complex stew of ideas bubbling just underneath Doctorow's sunny story.
But not everything is fun and games in Doctorow's world. Jules finds this out as he tries to disconnect, and finds himself increasingly isolated and outcast. We get a good bead on Jules, but other characters remain distant to Jules and to the reader. Vapid is as vapid does. But as Jules becomes disenfranchised from his society, the reader becomes more invested in Jules. What once seemed utopian to both reader and character soon shows unexpectedly unpleasant consequences.
'Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom' is a novel of ideas. It shares more in common with the work of Stanislaw Lem than with William Gibson. Cheap laughs and deep thoughts jostle one another, having a swell time as the reader enjoys the painful revelations that await Jules. Doctorow covers a lot of conceptual ground in a small space, and he makes something that's rather complex look ridiculously easy. But don't try this at home kids. You may injure your brain. If you're not backed up, then you might not be able to recover. We may think we're bitchin' -- but we're not Bitchun yet, not by a long shot.