One of the niftier things that Cory Doctorow does in Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom is to show a basically sympathetic character making a series of bad decisions for reasons that I, as a reader, could understand why he was taking those actions but I wished he wouldn’t and hoped he would figure out a way to sort himself out before he lost everything we both cared about. Doctorow has garnered a lot of praise as a novelist of ideas — the edition I have features a blurb from Bruce Sterling saying, “He sparkles! He fizzes! He does backflips and breaks the future!” — but it’s Doctorow’s skill with people, even transhuman people, that makes the ideas work.
The character I wished would make better choices is Jules, Doctorow’s first-person narrator and readers’ window into a semi-distant future in which humanity has conquered death and overcome material scarcity. Bodies are ephemeral and extremely modifiable, consciousness and memories are backed up regularly and rapidly so that about the worst that can happen to a member of the Bitchun Society is the loss of a fairly short span of memories covering the gap between their most recent backup and whatever caused the current body’s untimely demise. People have also colonized near-earth space, and perhaps more distant parts of the solar system but that’s not Jules’ focus.
He has already lived in space for a while, and at present he chooses to live in Disney World, a cultural landmark that has been running for well over a century at the story’s opening. A little more than a generation ago, the park was liberated from corporate control by ad-hocracies, passionate groups of fans who are willing to devote their post-scarcity lives to maintaining and improving the park experience for guests and earning Whuffie, the reputation-based currency analogue that simultaneously tracks social standing and opens the door to non-material luxuries of the future.
Doctorow shows an optimistic view of what people would choose to do if all of their material needs were met: build, learn, improve, create. Here is how Jules introduces himself, “I lived long enough to see the cure for death; to see the rise of the Bitchun Society; to learn ten languages; to compose three symphonies; to realize my boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World; to see the death of the workplace and of work.” (p. 7) He does not ignore how many people would spend their eternal youths getting naked and boinking — much of Jules’ time in space involved doing precisely that — but Doctorow tells a story of people who want to learn things, want to make things, and want to improve the world around them.
People being people, they have different ideas about what is best in life, or indeed what is best for the Hall of Presidents and the Haunted Mansion. Jules has joined an ad hoc that is dedicated to keeping Disney World going as a collection of analog attractions in an increasingly digital world. The group, now into its second generation running parts of the Park, lovingly maintains the antique animatronics. People still flock from around the world for the Disney experience. Jules lends his experience in crowd optimization and has settled into a dependable role within the ad-hoc. He is also in love and living with Lil, a second-generation castmember who is much younger and has a special affinity for the Park’s animatronic figures.
And then one day a new group showed up with a mandate: update the attractions. The anarchy that Doctorow posits in the Park (and presumably elsewhere) means that there will be no higher authority adjudicating whether the upstarts succeed. It will all stand or fall on the consent of the castmembers and the guests, as registered in visitor numbers and Whuffie scores. The new group, fresh from success and harrowing stories at a Park in Beijing, wants to digitize the whole experience, which will significantly increase the number of people passing through the attractions and, thanks to new technology, allow them to receive historical experiences directly to their internal augments. Jules and his crew argue that the digital experience can be had anywhere, that taking the analog and locational out of Disney World renders the whole thing moot.
Not everyone in the Bitchun Society is as cool and laid-back as the Californian origins of the word would imply. Somebody shoots Jules dead, and although initially he’s just lost a little time since his last backup and a little more time to recover in a new body, it’s enough to unsettle the ad-hoc equilibrium within the Park. To make matters worse, even all of the Park’s technology is unable to identify the shooter. Jules thinks it’s someone from the new group, but he can’t prove anything.
It’s about this time that Jules start making destructive choices. Some of them seem understandable at the time; others are things that his friends try to warn him away from but his stubbornness won’t let him turn back. Which is how Jules winds up down and out in the Magic Kingdom. I could see Jules going down the wrong track, but I did not lose patience with or sympathy for him. That’s no mean feat for an author, especially a first-time novelist as Doctorow was at the time.
The story wraps up in just under 200 pages, and although the ending is a bit forced, I enjoyed the brisk pace and quick resolution. There are plenty of ideas in the book, ideas about post-scarcity life, about practical anarchism, about ties between bodies and identity, about the start of a partly post-human future. But all of the ideas come alive through the people Doctorow portrays, and even if they are mostly drawn from a very optimistic take on human nature, they are a fun crew to spend time with, and I was glad that things (largely) worked out in the end.