A Fame Worse Than Death: Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

Copyright by Cory Doctorow.

Once you took backup-and-restore, the rest of the Bitchunry just followed, a value-system settling over you.

Those who didn’t take backup-and-restore may have objected, but, hey, they all died (Doctorow 320).

Cory Doctorow is slowly becoming one of those authors whose works I start to devour with a passion, much as I did with William Gibson’s novels a year or two ago.  At the moment, having absorbed the hip modern sensibilities of his short story “When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth,” I feel compelled to discuss one of his actual novels, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

The speculative story is set in the distant future, where the Singularity has taken hold and we live in a post-scarcity economy known as the Bitchun Society.  In this world, Julius finds himself in a bind.  On the one hand, while he enjoys a good lifestyle in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World with his girlfriend Lil, he also feels an obligation to his old friend Dan, who’s fallen on hard times.  Things get worse as intrigue builds up regarding a takeover of some of the park’s classic attractions, culminating in a tragic fight between the status quo and the cutting edge that ultimately leaves Jules in the dust and ready to start over.  Of course, this being the super-accelerated future where mind uploading and rejuvenated youth are common and cheap, he manages to recover fairly quickly.

It takes a while to realize it, but Jules is ultimately a tragic character.  In a world where social capital determines everything, he represents a clash with the changing tide in the Magic Kingdom, desperate to protect his friends and beloved rides like the Hall of Presidents and the Haunted Mansion.  His best friend Dan is an interesting counterpart, level-headed and wise, though not without his own passions and principles that occasionally get him into trouble.  Dan at least recognizes where he stands in relation to the ever-changing Bitchun Society and can freely choose to either adapt or bow out.

But the real core of this story is the future that Doctorow envisions.  The Bitchun Society is a civilization built on free energy and resources, where anyone can grow young again or resurrect themselves from a backup mind.  Money has given way to a system called “Whuffie,” based on reputation points accumulated by every social interaction over the course of one’s lifetime. Governments and corporations have given way to “adhocracy,” as people organize themselves into leaderless groups for specific purposes–like taking over the Haunted Mansion ride at Walt Disney World.  To Doctorow’s credit, as utopian as the Bitchun Society sounds, he does a good job of highlighting the problems such a society would have, like a lack of permanent structure and a reliance on a highly subjective reputation system (in other words, all the good and bad that comes from real-life Internet collaboration).

While this didn’t hit me as viscerally as “When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth,” I think it’s still a pretty cool novel.  Furthermore, Doctorow deserves a lot of praise for making this the first novel to ever be released under a Creative Commons license, encouraging its noncommercial distribution by readers.  It was a bold move in 2003, but it’s a good sign of trust between an author and his audience, and we need more of that forward-thinking attitude in the world at large.

Only then, maybe, will we on our way to having a truly Bitchun Society.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is available for purchase on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  It can also be downloaded as a free audiobook on Cory Doctorow’s website.

Bibliography: Doctorow, Cory.  Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  New York: Tor Books, 2003.


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