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Book cover design by Shelley Eshkar.
Review © 2005 by Thomas M. Wagner.
AUTHOR'S SITE | View Large Cover

The problem with a writer's being on the receiving end of a big steaming mound of hype is that I'm immediately dubious. I hate having my expectations built up too high. And I'm sure I've been as guilty of it as any other critic. My own hyping of China Miéville, for instance, probably fed some of my disappointment in Iron Council. (Though it also just wasn't that good a novel.) One reason I myself don't read other critics' reviews until well after I've read the novel in question is that I don't want to be influenced by implanted preconceptions. We litcrit wankers can be just as subject to communal reinforcement as anyone, and oftimes, when a majority of critics are in paroxysms of joy over some Hot New Talent, that's what's going on. (That's definitely what was going on when Neil Gaiman came to town.) You find yourself reviewing not the book you actually read, but the book you'd heard about and already built up expectations of beforehand.

Having said all that, now this: Cory Doctorow is a talented guy, and his debut novel is a witty and inventive piece of work that succeeds on a surprisingly unpretentious level. True, some of his jokes might be a bit arch, but this is the kind of social satire we see all too rarely in SF. Someone once described this book as "snarky" to me and I think they got it dead wrong; that's the usual way to handle satirical SF, by looking down your nose in hipper-than-thou mode at the foolishness of our blighted human race. But Doctorow comes across as a fellow who has a real warmth for his fellow Man, in spite of, or perhaps because of, our seemingly infinite capacity to screw up. This is a heartfelt little story about the value of the little things in a world, and a universe, much much too big and moving way too fast to care about us.

It's The Future, and the Bitchun Society (see what I mean?) has turned the world into a place where all that matters is your reputation, and just about any human experience can be simulated, virtualized, packaged and delivered worldwide. And if you get bored with having anything at all at your fingertips whenever you want it, you can just "deadhead" and wake up in a few thousand years, by which time, life might have thought of something new to offer you. (Shades of Roger Zelazny's "The Graveyard Heart"!) Julius lives with his girlfriend Lil and best buddy Dan at Orlando's Disney World, where they belong to an "ad-hocracy" dedicated to maintaining and upgrading the park attractions; in Julius' particular case, The Haunted Mansion. The novel goes on, through 200 taut pages, to depict a vicious feud that erupts between Julius and a rival who has turned the venerable Hall of Presidents into a state of the art digital wonder (disposing of all those boring antique animatronics). And now this rival seems to have set her sights on the Haunted Mansion, if not the entire park.

The idea of reframing what one might think of as a classic corporate or political espionage thriller — with all its duplicities and, in one case, even an assassination — within the context of Disney World is hilariously inspired. But Doctorow has pegged something very smart here, in using the setting as the metaphor it has always been in real life, for the nostalgia of a "simpler time," the innocence of childhood. Yet at the same time, the fact of Disney World as a rather crass enterprise that boxes and sells that nostalgia as an assembly-line product is right at the fore. The "children" attracted to the park now are thoroughly technosavvy whiz kids who are perfectly happy to experience the park and everything else on Earth from their own living rooms, and Julius finds himself an anachronism, holding on stubbornly to the idea of the preciousness of real over artificial experience. This stubborness, and the foolish choices he makes in acting upon the beliefs he holds dear, help to bring about his personal downfall and de profundis struggle. What, in fact, is real and what is artificial in the Magic Kingdom anyway? And if it delivers the thrills, who cares? As a story about the hazards of letting our obsession with technology and convenience strip our lives of the value inherent in things earned, worked for, and easily lost, Down and Out at the Magic Kingdom is likely to be one of the more surprisingly touching little tales you're likely to pick up.

What I like about Doctorow is that he possesses a skill few writers today, in an age when literary windbags are editorially indulged, possess: his tales are short, sweet, and get down to business. From the 50's to the late 70's, most of SF's finest talents were forced by market-driven publishing conventions to keep their books in the 175-to-225-page range. And while any artist would chafe against such creative restrictions, these writers took lemons and made lemonade, training themselves in the craft of storytelling efficiency. Even today I find myself consistently impressed by how well short novels from that period by the likes of Anderson and Silverberg and others hold up, and I see Cory Doctorow as a new talent who has studied well and learned some valuable lessons at that school. Hopefully other newcomers will get the message that you don't need 950 pages to get the job done.

But there's one thing very curious and unique about Doctorow that goes against all publishing wisdom: he pirates himself, with, apparently, the full consent of his publishers who would clearly like people buying his books instead of downloading them free. If the hype and awards nominations are any indication, this practice doesn't seem to have hurt his career much. Still, I gotta shrug. The book cover link above, which usually takes you to a book's Amazon listing, will take you to Doctorow's free download page. I mean, if he's giving it away, go for it. You just might like the book well enough to support him with your money after all. I'm sure that's his thinking. Then again, maybe not. Will you choose the real experience over the virtual?