Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Cory Doctorow is more than just an SF figure. He’s famous online for reasons other than his novels, which you can observe just by checking out how many webpages link to the blog he coauthors, BoingBoing. He’s a worldhopping Canadian, a volunteer activist, a freelance journalist, a mad cyclist (like me!) and a generally cool guy. Except for the fact he lives in America, I wanna be like this guy when I refuse to grow up.

Ooops, he’s only 32. Gee. Now I feel a little inadequate.

Ah well. There’s always hope, right?

Cover Art Stolen From Doctorow's Site, But I Hardly Imagine He'll Mind... Though If He Does I'll Remove ItAnyway, I finished his novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom today, and let me tell you, it was quite the thing. Now, unlike many of this novel’s readers, I didn’t get it all down in one go: it took me about three chunks of four hours to get through it, but then I am generally a slow reader and never finish any but the shortest of books in one reading; that, plus I had to backtrack because working the camp necessitated a long enough break that some rereading was necessary.

Reading Doctorow fills me with the kind of envy that comes to me when I read Bruce Sterling, China Mieville, Iain Banks, sometimes Greg Bear, Rudy Rucker, and Philip K. Dick. One of the things he does exquisitely, but which is not in my own writerly palette beyond a very small, contained degree, is humor. He’s funny, kick-in-the-pants funny, and yet you can see a very Serious face behind the cackling visage he presents as Author.

But the interesting thing, for me, is that he’s not Serious in the way I often am when I am writing fiction. Me, I write about Issues and I also write about Characters, but you can guess, from my frustrations, that too often the Issues overshadow the Characters, Plot, the SFness, and too many other things. I’ve long sought for a way around this, and I see someone who has managed a way to get around his own Seriousness and I marvel. Cory Doctorow’s trick is that he’s a hoot.

But of course, he’s Serious about something which, while I am somewhat concerned about, I cannot rouse full concentration to consider; he’s Serious about the future as it will be. Me, I sometimes can’t suspend disbelief enough to actually buy any of my own theories fully (and that’s usually because they’re poorly thought out, I guess, and my friends can poke holes in them with a blunt chopstick); but Doctorow has faith in his vision, even when his vision is as crazy as to be trained of a society called The Bitchun Society; even when the reputation points that replace money as people move into a post-scarcity-and-post-death-economy are called Whuffie; even when nearly all his characters live in an adhocracy in Disneyland.

Is this surprising? Apparently not. Doctorow says of himself that he is obsessed with two things: garbage and Disney. Both of these show up in nearly everything he writes, he says. Well, you can see what else he says of himself by following the link to his bio and from there to the rest of his site, which is named, in his self-effacing manner, Doctorow makes me think of my old friend Helen who said that it doesn’t matter what you do, just mean it… I’m not sure, to confess the truth, whether she said, “Mean it,” or “Care about it!” But you get the gist.

Well, whether it’s Disney, Whuffie, garbage, short story spoofery, technoreportage, or whatever, Doctorow seems to be quite serious about it… deep beneath the chuckles, the goofiness and geekery. His (free for reading, distribution, and even creative “remixing”) digital release of his novels was not only a clever form of promotion, but also a courageous form of criticism of our own terror of how the Net is changing intellectual property and the economy that surrounds it. And a successful criticism, I think, as his books are selling by the ton-load.

I turn to the novel now, lest you think this is just a Cory Doctorow love-fest. Is Down and Out a mere dark comedy? No. It made me laugh out loud, but there is more to it than that. There is the artistry that Bruce Sterling notes in his introduction to Doctorow’s short story collection, and there is the coolness of some of the things Doctorow does with the old SF tropes, like the downloading of dead people into new clone bodies (something that, in the Bitchun Society, some people do just to avoid the common cold). No, there is something more important and that is the beautiful poignancy of the characters that Doctorow draws: Jules’ reaction to losing his interface, his collapsed affair with Lil, his passion and his crumbling mind; Truckin’ Dan’s depression and Whuffie-poverty, and his perplexingly contradictory decisions; Debra’s desperation and cruelty masked by openess and sweetness; Lil’s confusion, mistakes, pain, and sorrow.

Even the short few pages about Jules’ ex-wife Zed are something that change your view of the Bitchun Society; the way she goes mad on Earth, not used to life planetside; the way her going mad is handled; the way she opts to reboot from a pre-Jules backup of herself, and throw away all memory of their love. The unique pain that Jules feels in this case, which nobody alive truly knows because in our world at the moment of breakup we still need to try to forget, or hope to forget, and because we know that we’ll always exist in the memories of those who have once loved us.

What Greg Egan did to the tech of SF, which was breathtaking, Doctorow has done to the emotional palette of SF. The levity, I realize as I say this, is the counterbalance to these rather surprisingly deep moments where we gain access to characters’ psyches. If all we had was the seriousness, we probably wouldn’t find his novel such a pageturner. Doctorow, in his wisdom, delivers us a mystery, a collapsing romance, the story of a friendship, wacky futurism, even holds up Disney World as America-To-Be. But he doesn’t lose track of the fact that the people in his world, though they can be rebooted after death, though they never need work for a living, though they can switch themselves off and deadhead to the end of the universe if they like, are still human beings, frail and perplexing and perplexed and beautiful and wonderful and sometimes quite awful but deeply fascinating.

So I recommend this book very highly, and I am now wishing I’d bought all of his work while I was in North America. Ah well, there’s always online book-ordering.

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