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.