(Dear god, I fear the search referrers this entry will garner. Cher googleurs: no Disney porn here, nuh-uh, just an over-clever title.)

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is, of course, boingboinger Cory Doctorow’s novel, released not too long ago in print and online in a plethora of free formats.

Just about at release, I grabbed it in a Palm-readable format, figuring, rightly I think, that this was the proper aesthetic choice for the novel, at least until I can pickup a tiny eye-glass mounting wireless HUD on ebay for twenty bucks. I didn’t really want to wait a whole year, though, so I went with it.

The experience of reading the book on a backlit Palm V had the satisfying quality of virtuality I was looking for. Green text on a darker background scrolling by in the night on a three-inch screen above my head.

I liked that enough I’m considering looking for other aesthetically apropriate material to read in that manner. Mind you, a book – a real, paper-and-print book – remains technologically superior in every respect.

But it was still enjoyable.

I thought I’d decided to forego a bareknuckle review of Down and Out, however, largely because I feel that Doctorow simply never went far enough. Looking over this, it seems I went right ahead and worked out.

Where Gibson uses invented terminology, some of which has become real, Doctorow often uses real terminology, some of which has been around since the mumble-mumbles, such as ‘grepping.’ When he does not, and instead invents a term (“whuffie,” apparently now in the proces of being adopted), the etymology is either too clear (“utilidors”) or never clarified (“whuffie,” again).

Finally, and in common with some other post cyber-punk writers, (Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon LEAPS to mind), Doctorow’s cheerleading for a post-capitalist economy based on something other than the physical production and accumulation of goods is both internally incoherent and (to me, anyway) unconvincing. I think the parts of both writers’ works that leave me the coldest are the celebration of hyper-competitive economics as in some way inherently guaranteed to produce better stuff, better lives, better community, etc.

History, as I read it, stands against this particular rhetorical point. Increasing competitiveness in large scale economies both increases overall wealth and the concentration of that wealth, which produces power imbalances that are remedied by, well, wars. And plagues. And so forth.

Even without these misfortunes, the process of capital concentration produces extreme social stresses and upheavals, such as famines, mass migrations, and so forth. Our culture educates us to believe that this particular kind of upheaval is both natural and inevitable, something that I think is simply an example of taboos presented to discourage inquiry and experiment.

One of the things that bothers me about SF that engages in this kind of cheerleading is that the ecomomies of plenty generally imagined, while laudably looking for economic mechanisms that resolve these issues and challenge this perception – that is to say, plenty is envisioned as the solution to problems of hunger and war and so forth – I can’t recall any that actually reimagine the economic practice of our time – at best they magnify it. Mind you, I’m excluding old-time utopians from this discussion!

In Doctorow’s novel, he depicts a popular uprising in favor of “the reputation economy” and kind of anarchist takeover of Disney World, both valid imaginings that situate his tale and make the story possible. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine change in either case would be as unmessy as he depicts it, and this seriously undermined my willingness to take the ride.

On another point, I suspect that Doctorow is capable of more ambitious prose and structuring techniques. I wish that he’d attempted to imagine the formal, technical changes in grammar and spoken communication that might occur one we all have personal hyper-contextual access to all the data in the world that we woould like to see at any time. While he makes reference to transhumans and extreme body modification, there’s no effort expended to describe the effect that such physical modification might have either on the social interaction of the body-modifiers or their psyches. As mind is symptom of brain, and brain is part of body, re-engineered bodies produce re-engineered minds.

(Wait, yes there is. A character is shown entering into a failed marriage with someone who has effectively rebuilt themselves. She’s depicted as having nearly abandoned the habit of speech. I guess I wanted more, and more language play, instead of non-verbal people.)

On the plus side, I have no idea if Doctorow’s ever actually participated in the goofy giddiness of a mid-to-large scale technology development process, but he absolutely nails it. Although he’s describing two things – a physical rehab of the Haunted Mansion and a wetware-type reimagining of the late, lamented Hall of Presidents (the attraction is gone from Disney Land, at least, or never existed there) – the production process, political backdrop, and egocentric jockeying for position were all nailed, not neglecting even the put-upon, wool-blinded VP of Engineering buffaloed by management into giving a production timeline estimate of eight weeks, whittled down from his initial ‘five years.’

When I read that discussion, I laughed out loud, having previously experienced both sides of the chat.

I also enjoyed the Disneyalia greatly, as I share Doctorow’s boundless enthusiasm for the parks themselves, and in particular for the remarkable and unique works of art which we refer to as the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.

My own belief is that Pirates kicks the pale, ghoulish stuffing right out of the completely unscary Mansion, but this is a Religious Matter. Doctorow’s fearless charge right into the heart of the buzz about the twin films currently in production by the Big D based on these rides is admirable. Is it coincidence? Did he plot the novel before the films were greenlighted? I don’t know.

The heart of these issues is fan concern and fear of creative innovation in beloved pop-culture objects, and Doctorow looks closely at what it’s like to be a creative person whose job is to balance these competing demands.

So, in sum, the book’s enjoyable, a quick little read, and just because I wanted more from it does’t mean you will.

2 thoughts on “Going Down in the Magic Kingdom

  1. Great review. I will read this book.

    You know, we were promised the heads-up display more than 5 years ago. Still waiting. Probably more than a year out.

    Also, shouldn’t postcyberpunk be all one word?

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