In his fanciful debut novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, author Cory Doctorow wastes no time in shaking up your familiar coordinates. In the opening sentence, readers learn about the abolition of work and a cure for death. Governments are also gone, superseded by ad hoc arrangements known as (but, of course!) adhocracies, sort of a cross between mafia fiefdoms and the "mutual protection associations" of philosopher Robert Nozick. Money has been replaced by Whuffie— think of it as a psychic credit score, but based on getting more props than disses from your home boys. Meanwhile, those who get tired of im- mortality and adhocracy can always sign up for a few cen- turies of medically-induced "deadheading"—no prescription required!
But some things don’t change, namely your favorite theme park rides.
Our hero Jules may be more than one hundred years old, but he is still young at heart—and has moved to Disney World, where he is a member of the adhocracy that runs Liberty Square and Tom Sawyer Island. The group’s leader is Jules's girlfriend Lil, who is only 15% his age, but who’s counting?—and with her parents off deadheading in Kissimmee, the two lovebirds are free to enjoy romance in the happiest place on earth.
But the Magic Kingdom becomes the menacing kingdom when a rival adhocracy, run by the power- hungry and tech-savvy Debra tries to encroach on Lil’s turf. Debra learned the ropes at the Beijing Disneyland, where she rose to the top with ruthless reworkings of time-honored rides. Now she wants to shake up Orlando, expanding her empire one attraction at a time. First she seizes the Hall of Presidents, where her flash- baking of various Oval Office residents into the cerebellum of visitors is a huge hit. Now she has here eyes set on the Haunted Mansion, currently controlled by Lil’s adhocracy.
Jules is determined to block Debra’s various power plays, but he is killed in a bloody shooting at the Tiki Room in chapter three. But, in case you forgot, death has taken John Donne's advice in Doctorow's future world, and murder most foul is now murder merely inconvenient. Yes, a direct hit with an exploding bullet destroys most of our hero’s viscera in a grand Sam Peckinpah moment. But in a flash, he is reconstructed with the help of a clone and a download from the memory backup…and is hopping mad over his brief, unscheduled date with grim reaper. The murderer got away, but Jules is convinced that Debra is behind his short-lived demise.
Does this sound zany enough for you? Different genres battle for control over Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and what starts out as a science fiction story veers into a murder mystery (with the victim as investigator—a new twist!), and finally morphs into a turf battle akin to those celebrated in various gangster movies. And any novel that ends with a showdown in a haunted mansion inevitably reminds us of ghost stories and horror tales. Meanwhile Doctorow populates his novel with a host of secondary characters that add to the pageantry. Jules’s best buddy Keep-A-Movin’ Dan would fit nicely into a cowboy story, and his ex-wife Zoya, a spaced-out hippie girl with red fur, might be an exile from Dr. Moreau’s island. The only constant in this book is the furious forward motion of the story, and the unpredictable turns it take along the way.
What the above summary may not make clear is this author's light touch. Doctorow's prose avoids the banality of so much genre fiction with its fanciful and colloquial tone, daubed with touches of humor. And while his peers reach for the stars—offering intergalactic wars, dark empires of the universe, and slimy green aliens with rad weapons—Doctorow is capable of channeling his sense of the fantastic into the familiar icons and mementos of current-day pop culture.
But the theme park itinerary presented here is not just a collection of cheap thrills. Doctorow is always in control, and never lets the theatrical elements in the story run away with it. Readers looking for a fun ride will definitely get a star attraction, but there is much more here than a quick buzz. As Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom makes eminently clear, Cory Doctorow is the real deal, a new millennium sci-fi writer with plenty to say and Whuffie to spare.