and Out in the Magic Kingdom
by Cory Doctorow
After you've beaten death, disease and poverty where do you go to while away the hours? What can you do to fill up the value void left in the wake of abandoned humanism?
Cory Doctorow, a brilliant Canadian short story author with plenty of promise, sets forth his own answer in his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kindgdom. You go to Disneyworld.
Brighter minds than mine will probably see Disneyworld as a metaphor for post-human reality. It's a classic example of a group of humans finding meaning in going through the motions. Is the charade of characters and guests at mouseland any less real than the charade of walking around being "yourself"?
When we've opted for backups of our experiences that can be loaded into fast grown clones, when whatever you want can be poured out of a faucet for the asking, what's left that we can find meaning in?
Cory's first novel answers that question in two ways. One by finding something that turns you on and devoting yourself to it...and two, by finding people you care about and caring back at them. And three, (Did I say two ways?) when you find it all too tedious to bear, freeze yourself and set the alarm for a few centuries down the line to see if anyone has come up with any new stories to tell.
In DAOITMK, Jules, the point of view character, has been around long enough to remember the death of death and the old way of life, before everyone had a backup of themselves stored to be reloaded in case of accidental death, before the economy of scarcity was driven out by the economy of personal status. Not that everybody went along with the new order, but those who didn't...well, they've died of old age. Dan, Jules' friend (since the late XXI century) made things interesting for himself by searching out pocket societies of folks off the grid, living the old way, and conniving them into the mainstream, unfortunately for him, he's run out of holdouts to convert. Then there's Lil, the love of Jules' life, well the one he's currently involved with anyway. Lil is 15% of his age, an actual 23 years old, and she lives in and for Disneyworld, a.k.a. The Magic Kingdom.
Jules has been around a while, dead a few times, and the truth is he doesn't really fit in in future modern society. He's a single actor in a world of cast members and he'll never get the hang of the "ad-hoc" consensus style that society has assumed, that Lil is steeped in. What draws the two of them together, besides the unquantifiable attraction between human particles, is their mutual love of the classic Disney creations. Jules keeps coming back to Disneyworld as a touchstone after each of his rebirths or life crisis and when he returns after meeting Lil, Jules decides to just stay on and be part of the cast, a caretaker of the old way.
But a new day is coming. Forces are at work to rebuild the attractions as virtual shows, flashbaking the characters' realities into the guests' minds, providing an ultimate Disney experience. To Lil and the members of her ad hoc that's tantamount to destroying priceless objects D'art. To Jules, its a cause to call his own...and when Dan shows up on the scene, it's a farce that provides him the opportunity to build up his net based status rating to the point where he has some self respect, so that he can kill himself (for real) now that the future has nothing left to woo him with.
Can Jules stop the takeover of the Magic Kingdom? Can love survive? Will Dan kill himself as an existential comment on the futility of life? Does any of this matter?
Cory's book takes place in a landscape that's becoming very familiar to SF Readers. Recently I've read works about the future of immortal humankind where the specter of death is ghost and the economy of free power makes comfort a universal right including Collapsium, The Golden Age, and The Omega Expedition. What separates Cory's view from folks like Wil McCarthy, John Wright, and Karl Schroeder (who co-authored The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction with Cory) is that Cory is, deliberately and unabashedly...a punk. It's not fair to call him a cyberpunk, since his characters get out more than most geeks, but a punk just the same.
Look at the friends he keeps. Bruce Sterling says, "He sparkles! He fizzes! He does backflips and breaks the furniture!" Rudy Rucker says "He starts out at the point where older SF writers speculations end." Not only that, but he's giving the book away (in eBook) and his own website has a scatological surname (www.craphound.com) which comes from the name of one of his short stories.
Cory's punkishness comes out it the rejection of ideals and the assertion of equivalency of experience. His characters are invested in maintaining an artificial world (Disneyworld) because there's no point in investing yourself in the real one, less than no point really, because Disneyworld pays off in the only currency that means anything in the long run...what other people think of you. Yes, Corey puts forth (though possibly to show its weakness) that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world...and though it may be a a small world, after all, it's one where we're going to have lot of time on our hands.
No, that's all wrong. In the end, I suspect that Cory's telling us that you can try to lose yourself in external things, other people, missions and causes, but in the end, you've got to sleep with yourself.