Posted by: GravatarWon'tDeleteMyAccount | July 27, 2008

Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom


There, I said it. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, and now, well now I say things like whuffie.

Cory Doctorow’s novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, is a story about the adolescence of the human race. It’s about more than that, too: friendship, love, murder, maniacal not-for-profit competition in the designing of disneyworld attractions in a transhuman world — it’s about these too, but mostly it’s about growing up.

Taking place in a post-death, post-scarcity world, the novel focuses around Julius, a clever sometimes luckless centenarian in (for most of the story) the fourth regeneration of his body, with an apparent age of maybe twenty-five. Through his experiences and reminisces the reader is treated to a tale that makes it abundantly clear that the greatest challenge in the future is the same as it is now: other people.

In Down and Out, Doctorow creates a world where currency has been replaced by what it had come to meananyway: reputation. Going by the name of Whuffie, a term now being picked up elsewhere, it takes the form of an intangible but very real, measurable quantity, kept track of by the vast network into which everyone’s brains are connected. It can be accrued, spent, and lost with incredible speed — the ultimate in social capital. One could as easily get rich via propaganda as one could be bankrupted by a smear campaign.

The crazy part about this story is how sane it all sounds: the political manoeuvring to regain the esteem of others, and with it, the power to change the world, is all too familiar even in the here-and-now. In a time when the human race has conquered death, Doctorow has shown us still to be fighting, as a society, what may be the greater challenge: the high-school popularity contest, the tooth-and-nail struggle to prove ourselves to the world, no matter where that world may be or what it may comprise.

But despite all the incredible detail in this vision of the future, it is in moments of introspection, where the characters step back and take a long hard look at themselves, that we can see this novel really shine, where despite being near impossible to kill, the fragility of human-kind shows through.

When I was a kid, I used to read science fiction a lot. I still do. Back then I thought it was because the stories had spaceships and aliens. Now I know in part that the heart of science fiction is us, and the way it tells us about ourselves. Doctorow makes this, above all, clear. If and when we ever conquer death as a species, we may have to face the inevitable realization that only then will we have passed from childhood into adolescence, and even then we’ll still have a lot of growing up to do.

As for me, I just like saying the word Whuffie.


Cory Doctorow is a novelist, columnist, editor for and much more. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 1.0 license, and is available for free download from his personal website, Craphound, or on paper for a small fee from or your local purveyor of dead trees.


Coming next Sunday, August 3: John Kessel: The Baum Plan for Financial Independence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: