Review:

Wil Wheaton

Cory is a friend of mine, and I read an advance of “Down and Out” last year.

If you’re into SF at all, I think you’ll really like it. He does an amazing job creating this future world, without ever beating the reader over the head with his creation. He introduces us to concepts like “Whuffie” (sort of like Slashdot Karma, but in real life), “Dead Heading” (going into suspended animation for centuries at a time) and others without resorting to oblique definitions. Rather, the reader experiences these things firsthand. Cory’s writing is so simple and direct, it’s easy to know what’s going on, and his future world resolves itself very quickly.

This story centers around Jules, who is relatively young guy at just over a century old. He’s part of the Bitchun Society, which has its spiritual and cultural center at Walt Disney World in Florida. The resort is ruled by several different clannish “ad-hocracies,” who control the various lands within the parks.Jules’ girlfriend is part of the ad-hocracy that controls Liberty Square, including The Haunted Mansion.

Like all Disney visitors, Jules loves the The Mansion.He (and Cory, I bet) understands one of the main reasons it is so popular: it is timeless. Whatever the visitor’s age, whatever the year he visits, The Mansion will remain unchanged. So when The Mansion is threatened with revision and updating by a rival ad-hocracy, Jules takes desperate measures, and ends up murdered.

When he is restored from a memory backup, he takes the reader with him as he tries to find uncover his murderer.

I loved this book. The only thing Cory brings to life more vividly than the future WDW is the Bitchun Society itself. I was so engrossed in it, I didn’t want to leave.

Review:

A K M Adam

Doctorow writes with a satisfying deftness, keeping his plot progressing at a an almost cinematic pace (indeed, the novel reads in some ways as a draft for a screenplay, although, regrettably, one can’t imagine the Disney corporation having the insight to permit such a movie to be made, more’s the pity). The periodic flashbacks don’t throw off the plot line’s advance; the hypothetical technology seems real and, largely, quite desirable (someone must encode a process for identifying Whuffie, now–speaking of which, whence comes that tag for online reputation?); the neologisms are generally transparent. Though the characters are drawn to be no rounder than the plot requires, they hold our interest and engage our sympathies in subtle ways. Most important, the ideas at stake drive the plot: What does it mean to have a particular identity? What makes an experience particularly moving or enjoyable? What makes Jules’s life meaningful? Doctorow propels readers through an amusement ride of meaning, leaving them exhilarated, tantalized, and eager for more.

He might well have supplied more without overextending the plot. Jules refers often to his days at the University of Toronto, and Doctorow might have offered a fuller picture of that critical phase of the radical social change that the whole book presupposes. Or he might have written out a longer ending, permitting readers to see how the year in Disney World affected Jules in the longer run. Still, one can’t complain about an author who opts to leave readers hungry for more rather than yawning for less. The streamlined narrative conveys part of the disburdened world Jules inhabits.

Critics are comparing Doctorow to Bruce Sterling, Douglas Adams, Neal Stephenson; what excites me about Doctorow is his capacity to work with ideas as Philip K. Dick did, but with significantly greater grace and elan. Compare Down and Out with We Can Build You, not only because both deal with animatronic presidents, but also because both provoke questions about what makes feelings “real,” about manipulation and coercion of assent, about what makes a life meaningful. You will see, I think, that Dick’s brooding brilliance does not overshadow Doctorow’s truer gift for narrative and composition; where Dick got there first, Doctorow makes more of the elements, more satisfactorily. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom breaks through not by virtue of being clever or portentous or literary or slick or even distinctively original, but by virtue of excelling at the job of writing vividly, lightly, about heavy topics–and such breakthroughs (like moving pictures, or flying steel) change things.

Review:

Wired Magazine

In a world of affluence and immortality, the big battles will be fought over culture, not politics. That’s the starting-point of Wired contributor Doctorow’s daring novel set in a futuristic Disney World where talent cooperatives vie to run the attractions. One faction wants to convert the Haunted Mansion into a theater that “flash-bakes” sensory impressions into patrons’ minds, offering them the thrill without the ride. Few challenges to copyright giants are as entertaining as this book.

Review:

Publishers Weekly

A lot of ideas are packed into this short novel, but Doctorow’s own best idea was setting his story in Disney World, where it’s hard to tell whether technology serves dreams or vice versa. Jules, a relative youngster at more than a century old, is a contented citizen of the Bitchun Society that has filled Earth and near-space since shortage and death were overcome. People are free to do whatever they wish, since the only wealth is respect and since constant internal interface lets all monitor exactly how successful they are at being liked. What Jules wants to do is move to Disney World, join the ad-hoc crew that runs the park and fine-tune the Haunted Mansion ride to make it even more wonderful. When his prudently stored consciousness abruptly awakens in a cloned body, he learns that he was murdered; evidently he’s in the way of somebody else’s dreams. Jules first suspects, then becomes viciously obsessed by, the innovative group that has turned the Hall of Presidents into a virtual experience. In the conflict that follows, he loses his lover, his job, his respect-even his interface connection-but gains perspective that the other Bitchun citizens lack. Jules’s narrative unfolds so smoothly that readers may forget that all this raging passion is over amusement park rides. Then they can ask what that shows about the novel’s supposedly mature, liberated characters. Doctorow has served up a nicely understated dish: meringue laced with caffeine.

Review:

Locus Magazine

There is something fresh about the first novel from Canadian born Bay Area resident Cory Doctorow. Following on from his most obvious predecessor — the one all reviewers will be citing, Bruce Sterling — he has delivered in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom the kind of science fiction novel that the band They Might Be Giants would have written if they’d OD’d on old cyberpunk novels and back issues of Theme Park Monthly. It’s cool, it’s hip, and it’s fun — but more importantly, it’s about something.

The post-singularity, post-scarcity 21st century North America of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is the province of the Bitchun Society — a socio-economic system based on a distributed reputation where ad-hoc groups of volunteers who have the coolest ideas and the most reputation points (“whuffie”) get to put their plans in effect. Just past his 100th birthday, Jules has lived long enough to see the end of scarcity, the defeat of death, the collapse of nation-states and resource-based economies, and the rise of the Bitchun society. Well into his third career, he’s now working with his much younger girlfriend Lil, whose parents were part of the original ad-hoc crew that took control of Florida’s Disney World, as a crowd-flow analyst for the crew that runs the Haunted Mansion at the theme park. But the crew’s position, protecting the traditions of the classic Haunted Mansion while heightening it as an experience, is threatened when a new high-tech crew takes over the nearby Hall of Presidents. Quaint old animatronics are stripped out and replaced by the latest and best in brain interface gaming: you can be Lincoln or Washington. And as the whuffie of the new crew skyrockets, Jules becomes increasingly convinced that they have plans for the Haunted Mansion — a suspicion that only grows when he’s murdered.

For all that Doctorow is clearly in love with his cool gadgets and neat ideas (there’s little doubt he’s a real sci-fi guy), Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is the kind of intelligent, clear-eyed social science fiction that is most obviously descended from the work of Pohl and Kornbluth in the early ’50s, through some of John Brunner’s work in the ’60s, to John Varley in the ’70s and Sterling in recent times. It also clearly marks Doctorow as one of today’s writers to watch. In what is a comparatively short novel, especially by today’s rather bloated standards, Doctorow sketches out a believable group of characters engaged in a society that seems to have been vat-grown in the interstices of Sterling’s Distraction. It has the same humid, sticky, lived-in feel, but where Sterling’s Oscar Valparaiso looked at the broader national and political stage, Doctorow focuses on a palimpsest of the political system, and, in doing so, makes his point just as effectively. The ideas are cool, the gadgets are neat, but, for all that the recipe is geeky, the final product is not. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a sleek, tightly written book that, as the best science fiction should, engages the world.

Locus Magazine
December 2002
Issue 503
Vol. 49, No. 6

P. 27

Reviews by Jonathan Strahan

Review:

Blogcritics

About once every ten years, a Science Fiction novel appears that redefines the art form. One that describes a world different from our own, but recognisably ours – extrapolated from current trends, but richly evocative of its difference, adding words to the language that needed to be coined. Books like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy, Snow Crash and now Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

What these books have in common are worlds that draw you in and make you believe in the technological underpinnings, accepting them implicitly and learning their terminology (TANSTAAFL, frood, Metaverse, Whuffie) as you go, while you follow the adventures of characters you come to care about.