Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2003, 208 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30436-8

Finally. Someone is getting it.

The late nineties were a time of unprecedented social change as driven by new technology. The Internet barged in, people reacted, adapted, lived on. Textbook techno-revolution as defined by Science Fiction. You would have thought that SF would have thrived, expanded, crowed a little, gained new respect and built on the wave.

Pfah. Insert sounds of crickets. SF stood still, closed its eyes and hoped no one noticed it was still recycling its own past glories. Meanwhile, I was going nuts trying to find The Good Stuff, the real cutting-edge SF that went past First SF’s increasingly creaky futures. Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson and Greg Egan rock my world at every new book. But they alone can’t sustain an avid reader like myself. Where are the other new SF writers? Why can’t anyone else do something as simple as consider the lessons of the Internet boom and apply them to the coming spintronic, biotech and nanotech revolutions? Why is it that “Wired” is more interesting than “Asimov’s”?

With his first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow vault onto the stage as an amazingly confident SF writer, someone born of both SF fandom and the pressure-cooker of high technology. With his book, he bitch-slaps most of the sleepy SF mid-list, teaches the genre a new trick or two and (in passing) reaffirms my belief in Science Fiction as a literature with a future.

Reading the most optimistic speculations of the digerati, it would often seems as if humanity is doomed to utopia. What with nanotech ending material scarcity, biotech leading the way toward immortality and computers linking us all while putting libraries of libraries at our fingertips, you will have to work hard at being physically needy in the none-too-distant future. Throw in space exploration, personality uploads/downloads, cryogenics plus a reputation economy based on “whuffies” and you’ve fulfilled Wired’s checklist for the future. When people are free to live long enough to compose symphonies, learn dozen of languages, get multiple post-graduate degree and do pretty much what they want without fear of death as more than an inconvenience, what is the difference between such a society and paradise as defined by the Internet revolution?

That’s where Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom begins. It’s no accident if the cover blurbs are from luminaries from the infotech and SF field: Sterling, Rushkoff, O’Reilly, Kapor, Lessig and Rucker all provide tantalizing praise about the novel and it actually does live up to its advance reputation: This is prime twenty-first century Science-Fiction, staking a claim to our new futures rather than the recycled day-dreams of the old SF. As our protagonist Julius navigates the chaotic (but functional) ad-hocracies of the Bitchun Society and sees his whuffie level fluctuate along with his attempts to preserve Disney World in its original TwenCen glory, the electric newness of Doctorow’s prose becomes contagious. You do not read it as much as it infects you.

Though it may be only 208 pages long, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is one heck of a book crammed with an overdose of ideas. Written in a compulsively absorbing style that combines the eyeball kicks and the irreverence of the latest prose punks (Palahniuk, Stephenson, Sterling… you know: the good ones), Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom flattens the competition and delivers on the promises of Science Fiction. You do not merely want to live in this future; you want to create it.

But, perhaps more importantly for genre readers, this is a novel that finally takes the extrapolation crown from the socio-technological crowd and brings it back (if only for a book) in science-fiction. This is what SF should have transformed itself into, rather than keep on refining the same old shtick over and over again. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is not a complicated book (the ending is even a curious let-down), but it has a vitality of its own. Reading it is a breath of fresh air after so many dull stories that all feel the same. Doctorow manages, with this novel, to land at once on my “to buy!” list of authors: He, like few others, represents the future of SF.

You can see for yourself at where the whole novel is freely available on-line for your reading pleasure… Read the thing, forward the URL, pre-order the paperback for your paper library and wait for his next book… if you can.

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