Book #66: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003)

9781490613635author: Cory Doctorow
language: English
length: 264 minutes (4 hours 24 minutes)
finished on: 12 July 2014

I’m still pretty ambivalent on Cory Doctorow’s stuff. On the one hand, the subject matter is often vaguely interesting and the writing style addictive, but on the other, it can also be irritating. This book falls into the latter camp for various reasons. It’s another one from the Humble Bundle that I started pretty much blindly.

It’s a very short book, so it didn’t take me that long to finish. But the first thing I noted about it is that the quality of the audiobook is basically crap, to the point that it’s annoying. Doctorow apparently recorded it in his own front room, and you can hear the sound of pages turning and occasionally trains going past his window. I can only assume that it’s because it was his first book and he decided that if no-one else was going to, he would do it himself? I’m just glad the other ones I’ve listened to have been professional quality, at least. Make no mistake, this kind of error can be make-or-break for an audiobook, no matter the quality of the content. But I’m going to tease that apart now.

The book is about a future world that has cured death and illness, essentially by everyone becoming cyborgs that can back up the contents of their brains and load it into a new body. It’s also (what Doctorow obviously considers) a utopian post-scarcity society. I think there is some unexplained “free energy” that allows people unlimited resources, and instead of money, people accumulate a meritocratic currency by doing things others can enjoy (which is also poorly explained). This currency can be spent on things like getting preferential treatment in bars, but when the main character bottoms out on his supply, he’s ignored, robbed and machines stop working for him, so, since it’s based on everyone being a chirpy caricature of an American customer service worker all the time, this sounds like literally the worst thing. It’s a very optimistic work, something that I really think couldn’t have been produced in the past six years, so it’s already starting to show its age.

The actual story is a bit vapid. The setting is DisneyWorld, where hipster types have taken over the day-to-day running as the new economic order set in. Their work is stagnating and there is in-group bickering. Then the main character gets murdered and is reset into a new body, but his internet capability has been unscrupulously disabled and he’s forced to consider the philosophical implications of living in a society where death is so cheap, and can’t reset into a new body again (the only way this society has of curing any ailment anymore) because if he does so he’ll also erase any memory of the entire incident and his enemies will win the bickering. Or whatever. He doesn’t even consider the implications that well in the end. I can’t remember how he chooses to live out his life at the end of the book. Ultimately that’s the biggest problem with this book: it has a few ideas that should be interesting and could easily be explored in great detail, but it actually only touches on them briefly. I think this can be attributed to it being Doctorow’s first novel, as he’s obviously yet to hone his writing style.

Where the book gets extremely irritating is the sheer amount of made-up sci-fi-sounding words that are peppered about. A lot of them make the characters all sound like overgrown teenagers – for instance, the society is called “bitchin'” and the currency is called “woofie”… or they are in the audiobook anyway – so the participants of this society are woofing at each other like a sleazy gay app. A bit of cursory research revealed to me that they’re spelt “bitchun” and “whuffie” in the book itself. There’s also some maddeningly opaque use of words like “ad hoc” to mean an ad hoc committee, except that it’s not immediately obvious what such committees are presiding over.

I’m also confused as to why all these immortal centenarians, even if they are in the body of a 23 year old, are still acting like 23 year olds. With that kind of age, whatever body you happen to be in, comes emotional maturity… surely? I remember this being a major gripe with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series, too. Overall, it was unsatisfying, basically, but as I mentioned, there are good ideas in there, and it’s not a completely vapid read, even though some of it is unsufferable. It’s also free to download from Doctorow’s website, which is a major plus point in its favour, since it means if you decide to read it, it won’t cost anything.

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