When I first came to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom I did so with mixed expectations. I had no experience with Cory Doctorow as an author and I could see from the back material that the book would be both a cyberpunk work and one that cited, of all places, Disneyland Park. I understood well, from reading Doctorow’s blog that he is quite a fan of Disneyland and its attractions—especially those in a historical sense. So when I peeled back the first page of the electronic version of this book, I expected to be brought out into the Magic Kingdom in one way or another.
Instead, I found myself thrust into the near-future of cyberpunk where medical advancements have essentially done away with the concept of death and dying. Point-in-fact, the cure for death is in force. People need not die when their bodies and biological processes expire because they’re capable of backing up their consciousnesses into the cyberspace ether and have cloned bodies prepared for them to have their sentient-essence downloaded back into. The advances of science also grants the population of Earth a sort of near-telepathy that keeps people in constant contact with one another via neural implants capable of connecting them to the Internet from anywhere.
The best part of what I didn’t expect? The story essentially begins with a death: the murder of the main character. At this point, technology makes murder nothing less than an extreme inconvenience and in a short sort of a way it can even be the culmination of a prank for all how society views the act. To kill a person is to steal time from them (by causing them to lose anything since their last backup and having them basically “gone” until they’re downloaded into a new body.) So the overarching plot to describe this brave new world to the reader became a lackadaisical investigation by the main character into his own murder.
The introduction of the cure for death and technological telepathy have also done away with other things. Big things like paper currency and the concept of ownership in an almost techno-Marxist sort of approach to worldly goods. Doctorow inherits a type of social currency to take the place of commodity and fiat currencies (like US dollars.) This social currency is called Wuffie, an ephemeral reputation-based currency that functions a lot like credits. Since the world is essentially a post-scarcity economy—i.e. all necessities are taken care of for free and only therefore luxuries cost anything—people buy, sell, and trade using Wuffie.
People generate Wuffie by doing things that other people like, either through entertainment, technological progress, artwork, odd-jobs that people would rather a person did. Anyone can give or revoke Wuffie from anyone that they interact with, either in person or by encountering their work. As a result, even people with 0 Wuffie can participate in the system. Through this mechanism, Wuffie provides an incentive for people to do things that other people notice and recognize.
There’s actually an entire chapter about how the revolution from fiat money to social currency took place.
Disneyland also makes a prominent figure in the narrative of the story. It’s the backdrop for a lot of the things that take place and gives the characters something to do. Even though he’s on-the-side trying to figure out why he was killed—and piece back together what happened after his last backup and before his death—the main character also works towards gaining Wuffie by being part of an adhocracy who want to do things for Disneyland. The concept of adhocracy is another interesting concept, such as a group formed ad hoc from people available to do a project and governed by mutual consensus.
As a novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a very social cyberpunk novel where cultural innovations are driven by a background of technological majesty. It’s a well-designed what-if story about a society that’s still trying to figure out what to do with themselves and their technological marvels and thus doesn’t suffer as much from the why-not-that factor of highly futuristic cyberpunk that must hand wave or lampshade things that technology should have resolved.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading the book, although I felt sometimes a little cheated of the emotional reward in some places. The book is somewhat character driven and the main character has an infuriating personality at times—but he makes an excellent vehicle to see the world and understand the hows-and-whys of what the cure for death, technological-telepathy, social-currency, and a post-scarcity economy could do for a first world civilization a lot like our own.
It’s a lot softer and gentler than my normal favorite anthropological science fiction—as a result, I’d call it sociological science fiction—but it still does an excellent job of painting a near-future with living people and technologies we might have just around the corner.