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Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Cory Doctorow
Tor Books, 206 pages

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow was born in Toronto, in 1971. He has sold fiction since the age of 17. His story, "Craphound," was published in Science Fiction Age. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was his first novel.

Cory Doctorow Website
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A review by Martin Lewis

The problem with utopia is that it's boring. Post-scarcity environments tend to be lacking in dynamic tension. Whilst we would like to live in them, we don't necessarily want to read about them. One solution to this is a good old fashioned murder. As Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon recently showed, even immortality doesn't have to be an impediment to a murder mystery. It is just such a murder that frames Cory Doctorow's debut novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, but the actual meat of the story is social politics.

Julius lives in the Bitchun Society. Several years after Fukuyama jumped the gun, the Bitchun Society really does represent the end of history. It's a universal culture that covers the globe and the nomenclature is spot on: it is bitchin'. Though not completely post-scarcity (you can't just dial up your own personal spaceship), the basics of subsistence (food, shelter, information) are available to everyone. For the things that aren't free, Whuffie has replaced money as society's mediating function. Whuffie is concrete karma and the world is a giant P2P network. Reputation is everything. When your Whuffie is high, you are a god; when it's low, people treat you like you have a personal hygiene problem and when it's zero, elevators look down their noses at you.

Julius is also a hundred and forty years old and, at the start of the novel, he has realised his boyhood dream and is living in Disney World. With his twenty year old girlfriend Lil, he works on the Haunted Mansion and the Hall Of Presidents keeping these glorious 20th century monuments running. For Julius and Doctorow, Disney World represents a Golden Age; the coming together of the dreams of technology and childhood.

Despite occasionally fretting over the fact that Lil is fifteen percent of his age, Julius is content. Then on his way to meet a friend, he finds himself assassinated. Once he is resurrected in a force-grown clone, he is understandably upset about this. He is even angrier when he discovers that a rival crew, fresh from Disney World Beijing, have taken over the Hall Of Presidents and like butchering Burtons reimagined it. For Julius, this seems like more than a coincidence. He wants to solve his murder, but even more he wants to take back the Hall. So he engages in Whuffie warfare.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a short novel, only just clocking up two hundred pages. This is an entirely welcome thing at a time when twice that length seems to have become a bare minimum. It's quick and snappy, pared of all flab. It is not, though it has often been called it, a fun book. This perception is probably due to Doctorow's sprightly, bantering style. The story itself however is concerned with betrayal and mental breakdown. In this, Paul Di Filippo is right on the money when he identifies Doctorow as being aligned with the axis of serious jocularity (he could also have been describing himself.)

The one big problem for the novel is that Julius obviously isn't a hundred and forty years old, he's an eternal twenty something. It's an entirely understandable problem, but it's still there. But then, unlike Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom isn't an examination of the implications of rejuvenation but a look at the politics of plenty. It's a brilliant extrapolation from today's information culture; a culture Doctorow is fully immersed in.

Content aside, the novel has become famous because it is free. Since it is available to download for nothing, hopefully imploring people to buy it won't sound like hollow "two thumbs up" praise. So buy it and support an extremely promising young author who is trying to bring about the future.

Copyright © 2003 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis reviews for The Telegraph And Argus, The Alien Online and Matrix, the newsletter of the British Science Fiction Association. He lives in North London.

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