01 September 2008

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

(Source: Doctorow's website)

A few years ago, Cory Doctorow decided to try out a bold new experiment. He released his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, as a free ebook under the terms of a creative commons license. The book text was originally licensed under a fairly restrictive CC license, but it has since been rereleased under a CC-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, which would even allow me to release a remix of the novel, so long as I give Doctorow attribution and, I believe, pass along a copy of the original. This is a fairly bold move for a new author, but not one that is unexpected of an internet persona such as Doctorow. It has also definitely boosted his reputation and, I presume, his career.

Anyways, Magic Kingdom is a good book that concerns itself primarily with the aftereffects -- social and economic -- of the sudden cessation of the economics of scarcity. Modern economics are based on the principle that the things that people want -- money, energy, gold, etc -- are scarce and hard to obtain. Magic Kingdom critically analyzes an economic situation where people can effectively live forever and energy -- the major bottleneck for most everything in the above -- is free. Other books have considered such societies as well (Charles Stross's Accelerando comes to mind), but Doctorow adds to the story by considering a war taking place in, of all places, Disneyworld.

The story follows a character who works for an ad-hoc collective which is operating all the old rides at Walt Disneyworld, and the war concerns a new technology (called, IIRC, "flashbaking") which he believes will make his beloved old rides obsolete. Unfortunately, during the course of his war with technology, he comes off nearly as whiny as book five Harry Potter. I hated the protagonist and kept wishing he would just try to get his life back on track. In about chapter three, the protagonist is murdered and for the remainder of the book he keeps insisting that his arch-nemesis was behind it. Naturally, the truth is somewhat more complicated that it seems, but I don't want to spoil the book.

While the book is great by itself (except for the mopey protagonist), the vision of the future that it presents is absolutely fantastic, particularly Doctorow's "Whuffie", which is a unit of prestige. At some point I'd like to return to some of the concepts in this book (and others) and write up a few essays about post-scarcity economics. Post-scarcity economics is a common trend in science fiction, and no one really seems to be sure what will happen if/when energy becomes free. More on this later...

Until then, check out Magic Kingdom, which is available under a CC license from Doctorow's Magic Kingdom website. Enjoy.

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