On Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Posted by Jack on 2018-12-01 at 18:00
Tagged: books , scifi
TitleDown and Out in the Magic Kingdom
AuthorCory Doctorow

I'm vaguely a fan of Doctorow in the real world. I've read BoingBoing on and off, I relate to the perspective he brings to his work, of a sort of radical technologist concerned with information freedom. I identify with and align with that point of view.

That said, this novel was meh. I ended up giving it a 2 because it just reads too plainly and the conflict was utterly neutered by the utopian setting. The society Doctorow portrays is like Star Trek (post-scarcity) meets Altered Carbon (post-death) but it's really hard to have consequences when you live in a world in which the worst possible thing to happen to you is your social score goes down.

There are two components to the overall story. The main one is Julius, Lil, and Dan effectively defending their slice of Disney World from Debra - who represents a social threat of modernizing and thus discarding whatever special magic Julius et. al. ascribe to the place. The second component is discovering who arranged to kill Julius but that ends up being an utterly pointless dead end of a storyline that I expected to have a more interesting conclusion. Julius guesses correctly (in the abstract) who killed him, and then it's revealed his friend Dan was part of the plot... in order to gain enough Whuffie (social currency) to suicide with a high score. This mystery is officially solved in like one sentence (Dan's confession) and then nothing comes of it.

It's a common theme that all of the characters, who read like Doctorow stand ins, are perfectly rational up to the instant that they need to do something dumb to advance the plot. Dan's actions are stupid... there may be few predictable consequences of Julius' death but he's still going to fuck over his best friend for Whuffie when he's already in line for a bunch of it? Does not compute. Then Julius' actions to fight Debra never make sense. His behavior can be hand waved by his malfunctioning implants (which he also irrationally doesn't fix), but that doesn't somehow excuse his actions. He crawls into a tube to destroy Debra's work with some sort of EMP gun, and fails, then later when the heat is really on, he just flat breaks in and takes a hammer to everything. And for what? He states that he only believes it will buy him one or two days (and it ends up being a week) so he burned all of his social credit for a few days of breathing room? Lil and Dan start an affair out of nowhere, and are revealed when Julius comes online for a few moments and they're basically sexting each other in his presence assuming he can't see their locally public messages. What?

Even the motivations of the main antagonist, Debra, make no sense to me. Everyone's gaming to get their Whuffie score higher but at what point is enough enough? Domination seems to be her motivation, Julius believes she wants to control the entire park. But she also theoretically came from Disney World Beijing where she did great. So she's going to risk her Whuffie (and eventually lose it) by engineering Julius' death... and for what? The prestige of running a slice of theme park? Even if you buy that for her take over of the Hall of Presidents, what is her motivation for annexing the Haunted Mansion? How much better can she live with more Whuffie? As Julius mentions when he's become an outcast (for his irrational actions) even the baseline life in Bitchun Society is more luxurious than 99.9999% of all humans that ever lived. It's hard for me to believe that Debra is just that bent on Disney World when she could be literally anywhere else in the world building her own theme park from scratch if she wanted.

Fundamentally, I like this concept of the post-scarcity world and this social ranking meritocracy ("ad-hocracy") to determine who gets control of what (down to who can use the elevator or rent a hotel room) but the entire conflict is undermined by the fact that the very worst possible thing that could ever happen, the thing Julius is trying so hard to avoid, is that he gets kicked out of running a theme park ride and is forced to find something else to do in this wonderful utopia. The horror.

Some of the tangents (like Zora, or the U of T experience at the beginning of Bitchun Society) are more interesting than the main plot, but ultimately also unfulfilling. The themes were better explored in books like Altered Carbon (which came out a year before) or in the Culture books which deal with the post-scarcity and relatively post-death plot by having a galactic scale.

I would have loved to read more about what it means to be broke and undesirable in the Bitchun world, hitting notes similar to Black Mirror's Nosedive episode 15 years earlier. Or even explore the cultures that resist Bitchun society referenced early on (sort of like the Culture's Contact section on a small scale). Unfortunately, as it is the story is less Down and Out and more In the Magic Kingdom.

Speaking of... I've never been to Disney World so I spent a lot of this novel feeling like the setting was completely undescribed. Doctorow name drops a ton of attractions that I've never seen. I have no idea what the Haunted Mansion at Disney World looks like now, much less a hundred years into a post-scarcity future. I kept feeling like there was implicit information that I was expected to have but didn't - I was basically hanging in space. Even outside of the park, Doctorow seems pathologically averse to actually telling the reader about the surroundings instead relying on tropes. Unfortunately, that also makes it feel like early 21st century rather than whatever far future timeframe the story is set in.

Anyway, I was pretty disappointed in this book. I was expecting something a little more clever and absurd on a far future Disney backdrop, something akin to Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash that Doctorow directly references. Instead I got a really amateurish storyline set in a world that eliminates all consequences and never fleshes out what could be a really interesting setting.