Short Review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

I’ve plowed through Cory Doctorow’s book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I’ve always thought Doctorow was far too shrill in his screeds against technology companies, but I thought I would give his fiction a shot.

Good: 1. Likable if someone cliched characters 2. over-all decent exploration of the impact of radical technology changes on human life 3. Decent story with decent pacing 4. Setting the story in Disney World is great.

Neutral: 1. Short. This seemed like an extended short story, and I would have liked some more fleshing out of the characters and the plot. 2. I don’t think Doctorow either thought out some of the concepts enough, or communicated them well enough in the story. The biggest one is how people change though experience. All of his characters seem to act roughly the same age, or at the same level of maturity. I’d like to think that someone who had 200 years of realtime would act discernibly different from someone who was 20. 3. I think the whole concept of Whuffie is interesting but too briefly explained to hold up the systems he posits in the book. There’s little explained here that would keep the system from degrading into a popularity contest. That sounds like high school. I know this sounds trite, but in America today, we reward ambition above all else. It’s interesting to think about if ambition could be translated into competitive respect and about how a society would learn to game and manipulate an ongoing respect system.

Bad: 1. A few unbelievable character actions. I don’t want to ruin parts of the plot, but some characters engage in some behaviors that aren’t really well supported by their development. 2. Doctorow immediately launches into jargon which he is lazy to explain. This would be okay if he had the prose skill of William Gibson, but he doesn’t. So the reader is left fumbling for the first part of the story.

Great science fiction challenges us. It asks us to see the world in a different way, and to try and derive meaning from juxtapositions of that world and ours. I didn’t find myself doing that with this book. That’s not a terrible thing, but I would have expected that a book which showed people capable of such radically different things would have asked more of me.

Perhaps one of Cory’s thoughts for this book was that people, even when given the ability and technology to literally re-invent themselves, are somehow bound to a petty destiny of territorial struggle and meaningless interpersonal conflict even when the stakes are effectively zero.

The technology discussed in this book has literally staggering implications for what it would mean to be human. Yet Cory doesn’t take us over that point of no-return, where we no longer have a stable and concise definition of what being human actually means. Instead, those technologies seem only to serve as set dressing for more of the same.

Over-all, it was a pleasant read, but I wish Cory had spent more time and pages in developing the concepts and the characters involved.

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