Review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

The most notable thing about Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the first novel by Cory Doctorow, a Canadian author and digital rights activists, is that it is available freely online. The digital edition was released online concurrently with its publication by Tor Books (for those people who simply have to have physical copies), and is the first novel released under a Creative Commons license, allowing copying and distribution without further permission from author or publisher. Under a new license stemming from 2004, derivative works now be made freely, provided the license and attribution are retained and the works aren’t used commercially.

There is a far amount of debate about Creative Commons and other “copyleft” licensing systems such as GNU, which I don’t have the time to look into. A quick glimpse at all the jargon on Wikipedia is almost enough to convince me that it really isn’t for lay people…

Anyways, the novel is set in a futuristic world, where people no longer ‘die’ because they can continuoually replace their bodies, and reputation (called “Whuffie”) has become the foundation of life. Oh, and the protagonist lives in the Magic Kingdom, i.e. Disney World.

This is just the third English book I’ve read of my own violition since I came on JET (the others are all bookclub titles). What can I saw? It was the title and the blurb that got me reading it.

Jules is a young man barely a century old. He’s lived long enough to see the cure for death and the end of scarcity, to learn ten languages and compose three symphonies…and to realize his boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World.

Disney World! The greatest artistic achievement of the long-ago twentieth century. Now in the care of a network of volunteer “ad-hocs” who keep the classic attractions running as they always have, enhanced with only the smallest high-tech touches.

Now, though, it seems the “ad hocs” are under attack. A new group has taken over the Hall of the Presidents and is replacing its venerable audioanimatronics with new, immersive direct-to-brain interfaces that give guests the illusion of being Washington, Lincoln, and all the others. For Jules, this is an attack on the artistic purity of Disney World itself. Worse: it appears this new group has had Jules killed. This upsets him. (It’s only his fourth death and revival, after all.) Now it’s war: war for the soul of the Magic Kingdom, a war of ever-shifting reputations, technical wizardry, and entirely unpredictable outcomes.

I had this book for over a year before I found the time to read it, and it was a slow experience because there is a fair amount of jargon for a fairly short book. Bichun, Whuffie, deadheading…all take a little while to get one’s head around, especially when no concrete definitions are given. Yet, in some ways, those ‘new words’ make this future rather realistic, in the sense that the confusion that readers might get would probably be similar to, say, Victorians reading about our society today. Of course, a creator of a futuristic society could write all the explanations needed for everyone to understand, but where’s the fun in that?

The Whuffie system is also rather interesting, especially if you hang around forums nowadays. I can’t speak for others, but the one I recently joined (after a long break from them) has a reputation system, where you can add to the reputation of posters who, I suppose, help enhance others’ experiences in the forum. Although the catfights that break out on forums aren’t quite as nasty as the one between Jules and Debra’s adhocracies in Down and Out.

Short one today (after all, the blurb is copied), but in summary, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is quite a fun read. The world and all the crazy new inventions and terms take getting used to, but by the halfway point, I was quite eager to find out how it all worked out (read as: I spoilt myself and skimmed ahead). It’s helped, of course, by the fact that at just ~200 pages, it’s a decently short read. 7.5/10

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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