Friday, July 6, 2012

On "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" by Cory Doctorow ***

I'd never heard of Cory Doctorow until a few months ago when I was on a site called IWriteLike, where my own writing was compared to Doctorow's. That inspired me to dig this author out and find out a bit more about him. Doctorow, in fact, has a large web presence, but in a world as wide as the web, it's easy not to notice a lot of things. In part, this presence is notable because he's a big supporter of creative commons licensing and has released his own work this way: free to share.

I suppose one could say that Doctorow is a science fiction writer, and certainly this novel fits within that genre. But he's got a certain style as well that makes not only for easy reading but also joy. The writing reminded me a bit of many other contemporaries who focus a lot of popular culture in their literature; Douglas Coupland or Bret Easton Ellis, sans the violence, comes to mind.

Even more, though, this novel reminded me of the movie The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Like most science fiction, the themes and ideas loom large here, larger even than the characters, and like Eternal Sunshine, the book turns the tables on the bliss we usually imagine would accompany such things as eternal life or being able to wipe our minds free of bad memories.

In Down and Out, death has been cured. Bodies are cloned, and brains are stored and backed up like computer drives. This means that every few years, whenever your body crashes, someone else can simply restore your brain to one of the new bodies awaiting you. In a place where people live eternally in young bodies for thousands of years, time is spent not only getting innumerable degrees but also in accumulating popularity and good will (called "Whuffies") from others. More good will means ability to do more in the world, more choices, more luxury.

For the central character, it means spending time at Disney World, enjoying the rides and doing the occasional stint at the Haunted Mansion. It also means living in an eternal past, one that he worries about leaving upon his next reload. For somewhere along the way, he's fallen offline, so he's bound to lose his memories from the past year, when his last backup was done. This means losing the memory of his best friend, Dan, who has decided that eternal life is not worth the bother.

And in that rests one of the major themes of the book. Without our memories, what exactly makes life worth living? If we are the sum total of our experiences, and our experiences can be wiped away, then what are we?

Oh, there's a plot here all right, one that builds well, as one would imagine in a science fiction text. Someone is out to change Disney World, to update it, to, in essence, destroy many of the narrator's memories of a place. And it is this, this quest to keep the past always alive, that motivates our protagonist. But strangely, it is his unwillingness to let go of the present, to relinquish the recent past to return to an even older one, that leads to the book's denouement. Many versions of the book, including audio, are downloadable online here.

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