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Dystopia? Eutopia? Utopia?
on 18 July 2010
First of all, thank you Cory Doctorow for making your books available under Creative Commons Licences, for free, on the web. Also, thank you Sony for the Reader - it makes reading free ebooks a pleasure.
That said, I will probably not buy a hard copy of this book. It isn't bad, don't get me wrong, but it did not stun or wow me. (Unlike Little Brother, of which I did not only buy one hard copy for myself after reading the free version, but various copies for schools out in the world, and which I tried hard to get my undergrads to read. I suppose that means the verdict is out on whether creative commons is a good way of promoting work - I think it is a good way for great work, but a bad way for middle of the range works...)
So, Down and Out... What is it about? It's set in a post-scarcity society. Nothing is scarce at all - unlimited energy, unlimited resources, unlimited lifespans (courtesy of a simple process whereby clones are made to order, and memories and minds transferred into them when the person dies - all people need to do is back up regularly). The internet / information is universally available, in people's minds at a thought's notice. People don't use phones or hardware - when they want to reach each other, they subvocally connect to the other's minds and hope they let them in.
Very well. No scarcity means no real economy - except, people have something a bit like a currency still: whuffie. It's their social standing, turned into a number. People check each other's whuffie to see whether the other person is worthwhile sticking around, or lower down the pecking order.
In that world, our hero lives in Disneyworld with his girlfriend, looking after some of the rides. An old friend from University and former missionary assimilating other societies into this one, Dan, comes into their lives, bereft of whuffie and friends (despite being a legendary, whuffie rich person decades ago), desperate, and wishing, but not quite brave enough to kill himself...
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom sounds like a dystopia. Or rather, like the kind of dystopia where everyone in it thinks it's a utopia. Even the title sounds like it has a hefty dose of cynicism in it. Unfortunately, the book does not quite deliver on that expectation. Perhaps it does, but too subtly. Perhaps it is not meant to be a dystopia, but a utopia without value judgement, a literarily more ambitious beast.
The main plotline is actually quite mellow - our hero is part of a group of people trying to protect an old fashioned way of doing theme park rides (especially the Haunted Mansion), while another competing group is trying to turn the rides into virtual, modern, in-people's-minds experiences. It's basically heritage versus high tech, Routemasters versus bendy buses but with Disneyworld rides. Early on, a murder occurs, but as we find out, murder is entirely reversible in this eutopia.
Perhaps the book's main problem is that it sets up expectations - with setting, title, and the murder - that don't really get delivered on. I spent most of the first half of the book waiting for a sinister, rotten core about this society to emerge. I spent a lot of time waiting for things to get larger than about a little bit of office politics amongst maintenance staff in a theme park. I spent a lot of the book expecting this to be a thriller, and not a book about someone slowly self-destructing due to an obsession with the past.
I spent a lot of the time reading a different book from the one that was on the paper, (or e-reader), if you know what I mean. It's a bit like a Banksy interpretatiojn of the Hay Wain, except in reverse. With Banksy, the eye sees something it is used to, then it is livened up by subversion. Here, the eye sees something subversive that then turns into a mellow country side painting. No wonder some strange people on the web think whuffie is a good idea and are building computer systems to allocate whuffie to web users (everyone on Twitter has their whuffie measured and published somewhere, even if they never even heard of it...)
On the whole, this is a book that is full of ideas. It just seems to be a little undecided about these ideas, unsure whether it likes or dreads them, and, while nobly allowing the reader to make up their own minds, the story becomes weaker and less captivating as a result.