Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Reviewed date: 2010 Aug 26
Cory Doctorow's third book is better than his first book, but that doesn't mean it's good. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom has heady ideas and a fascinating conception of the future, but that doesn't make it engaging. It has Jules, a soul-searching protagonist, but that doesn't make it emotionally appealing. Au contraire. Jules is juvenile, petty, and unlikable. The fascinating future is poorly thought out and its flaws ruin the willing suspension of disbelief. It's a bad book.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom follows Jules, a down-on-his-luck citizen of the Bitchun Society. The Bitchun Society is a post-scarcity economy where death has been conquered through brain-backups and fast-grown clone bodies. Getting old? Died accidentally? No problem! Restore your latest backup into a clone body and you're good to go. Everybody participates in the Bitchun Society. There were some holdouts at first, who objected to clones and brain backups. But as Jules repeatedly says, eventually they all died.
And that brings me to my first objection: not everybody would participate in the Bitchun Society. Jules says that the holdouts all died. But that doesn't make sense. Enough people would reject brain-backups and cloning to sustain a small community, just like the Amish do today.
Money is history. The new currency is Whuffie, the quantification of a person's respect. Act nicely, and people will like you; you get more Whuffie. Act like a jerk, people hate you, you lose Whuffie. Simple? Sure. Except Doctorow doesn't exactly explain how Whuffie works. Do you spend it? Sometimes it seems that way, sometimes it doesn't. And worse, it wouldn't work in the real world. Some of the most successful businessmen and innovators are personally abrasive and even abusive to those around them. They get results and the wheels of industry turn--but nobody likes them. It's people like that--people so driven to succeed that they are willing to risk their reputation--who make the world work. In a Whuffie economy, those people would be broke and have no power. So who keeps the economy going?
Oh, and crime. When Jules is murdered--he had backed up only minutes before, so he doesn't lose much--nobody seems too worried. There aren't any authorities to turn to. Later, when Jules childishly vandalizes a competitors equipment, he isn't punished at all. He just loses Whuffie. So what happened to law enforcement and justice? Why is it completely absent from Doctorow's nifty future? I can understand maybe why murder would no longer be pursued as a major crime--you can just restore from a backup, so it's no big deal. But what about violent crimes like beatings and rape? Crimes that terrorize and cause emotional and psychological damage. Those can't be fixed by a simply restoring a brain backup? Well, some could. You just restore to a previous backup before the crime happened. You lose the memories of the intervening time, but you can get over that. But that wouldn't help much for crimes like child abuse. Can someone abused as a child just restore themselves to before it all happened? Considering that a pivotal plot element of Jules's murder, Doctorow's failure to think about how justice would work is a painful, glaring oversight.
Finally, the part I can't get past, is that Jules is childish, petty, and self-absorbed. He's a sociopath with a persecution complex: everybody's out to get him and his friends. He tries to "help" his friends at Disney World run the Haunted Mansion and prevent a rival group from taking it over and renovating it. But Jules crosses the line. He goes berserk, destroying and vandalizing the other group's equipment. He has no sense of basic human decency, and in the end, I wanted him to fail. Jules is wrong, Jules is evil. Everyone in the book would have been better off if Jules had never existed.
Cory Doctorow has put the entire text of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom online for free at his website, Craphound.com.