21 December 2007
Funny, frightening look at a future dominated by immortal adolescence
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Tor Books, 2003
Doctorow's nifty future, dominated almost exclusively by The Bitchun Society, is a world where death and scarcity are literally no more. People regularly make backups of their minds and have those backups restored upon the death of the current incarnation. Death, no longer something to be feared, has completely lost its sting, and with it, life seems to have lost its meaning. Bitchun society folks are routinely "restored" to avoid "suffering" through such trifling matters as the common cold. Others are brutally murdered with relative impunity; in the case of our protagonist, he is blown apart so that some one else can put their machiavellian scheme into effect and consolidate control. Of Walt Disney World.
And because scarcity, and with it a monetary economy, is no more, the Bitchun economy is based on reputation or popularity, measured in a "currency" called Whuffie. In this real-time popularity economy, a person's stature is in constant flux and can be monitored ("pinged") by anyone. In fact, it seems that, if there were one driving goal for those in the Bitchun Society, it is maintaining and increasing one's popularity. Which is why control of Walt Disney World is important enough to kill over.
Doctorow uses these ideas to good effect in his tale of murder, mayhem, existential crises, roller-coastering popularity, and theme park machinations. The vision of the future that he presents is a disturbing one. I find the idea of a popularity economy even more distasteful than the current wage-slave economy, because it reminds me too much of the 8th grade. If that is really our future, then please kill me now without making a backup. I would not want to survive in an entire civilization based on reputation and clique, and in my mind, to call that a civilization at all is a stretch. As well, the portrayals of the average Bitchunry are chilling; in Doctorow's future world, most post-human immortals in this novel have the intellectual, social, and moral development of adolescents. The intriguing ideas of the Bitchun Society are put to the service of a society of banal, self-indulgent, frat kids; alas, this seems true of the novel itself, because it brings up serious consequences of future technologies without examining them more closely.
All in all, it's a fun, short debut novel, but one that raises some frightening questions about the post-human condition without addressing them adequately.
(This review was originally written on July 31, 2006.)