Review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

Down and Out in the Magic KingdomDown and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found this to be an easy read. The story kept me entertained, turning pages to find out what was going to happen next. I enjoyed the Bitchun Society, and how seamlessly Doctorow blended both the high-tech narrative and the deep Disneymania into the story in a supportive way. The plot depended on it, but didn’t get overwhelmed by it. So the exposition was handled well, I thought.

Setting the story as a conflict between two teams of hereditary Disney employees bent on making the park a better experience for all involved made the story simultaneously more approachable and more obscure. By setting the action against a backdrop that is essentially the same in whatever far-flung future Doctorow has imagined as it is today, it gives him a familiar anchor point to highlight how different things are. At the same time, however, for those of us who haven’t been to Disney in a long time or who are unfamiliar with the various rides featured in the story (I have never seen the Hall of Presidents or the Haunted Mansion because both have always been closed for maintenance during my visits to both Disneyworld and Disneyland.), it is more than a little frustrating.

The problem I had with the book at the beginning was that nothing was really at stake. For anyone. The park was not going anywhere (as in “static”), and all the changes being made were done to preserve the experience for the visiting public. So no matter how it came out, nothing would truly change. Sure, maybe some of the characters would be inconvenienced, but it would be just that–an inconvenience.

Julius, the main character, goes on and on at some length about how death–even his own murder–is not that big a deal. Serious, debilitating health problems–such as, say, murder–are easily fixable: just clone a new body, make a backup, and restore into the new body, better than the previous one. With multiple lifetimes to live, humans tend to lose the urgency that makes every minute of our lives precious, and this is nicely portrayed throughout.

When Julius loses all of that about halfway through the book, this is when it “picked up” for me. Now we have a character who genuinely has something to lose. His every moment becomes precious because he can’t back up, so if he renews, he’ll lose a large chunk of his life, including the last year of the life of one of his best friends. This underlying story was what kept me turning the page, wondering how it was going to be resolved.

I didn’t really expect the revelation at the end (the Whodunnit), but it made sense within the framework of the story, and didn’t betray the characters’ personalities. I thought Doctorow handled it well.

The reason I gave this three stars instead of four (I did really enjoy it while I was reading it) is that the ending…just sort of petered out. Again, nothing was really at stake. Once Julius agreed to be restored if anything happened to him and forgave his murderers, there just wasn’t any reason to care anymore what happened to him. Which may be exactly what Doctorow had in mind. Julius moved on, Disneyworld went back to whatever passes for “normal” in the Bitchun Society, and the story ends. What eventually happens to everyone other than Julius is left unrevealed, and as a reader, that didn’t bother me.

Because nothing is at stake for any of them.

My main dilemma right now is trying to decide whether this story was Utopian or dystopian. I could go either way.

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