Book Review from the Pocket Pistol: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow (Roughly 200 Pages)
This is the third book by this author that I’ve read, after Overclocked and Little Brother. It’s also the first pseudo-singularity science fiction novel by this author that I’ve read. Sadly, I found it a little disappointing.
It was written in an engaging style, the plot progressed well enough, and I actually managed to care about the characters I was supposed to care about at least most of the time.
The science fiction characteristics of the story were predicated upon two core ideas:
Whuffie is the term used for a purely reputation-based currency. The idea here is that material scarcity is all but nonexistent in the world of Down and Out, so a standardized, digital record of reputation “points” has become the new currency.
People are effectively immortal, at least in practice, because of the fact that their memories can be uploaded from their bodies at regular intervals (the author goes so far as to call these uploads “backups” in the context of the story) and get the last backup downloaded into a new body if the old body happens to meet with an untoward fate or gets wrinkled or something.
It’s really the handling of these concepts that puts me off the book. The author presents them as part of the world, and mostly doesn’t question them or their appropriateness in any way. For such a drastic change in the way things are done, with such powerful potential effects in both the social and ethical realms, one would think a forward-looking speculative fiction writer would spend a little more time examining the consequences of adopting these practices as a worldwide society.
There is one character who serves as the obvious questioner of the serial immortality provided by backing up memories, but by the end of the tale his questions and objections are wiped away with a casual wave of the hand, finally accepting the unconvincing postmodern non-explanations everyone else uses to justify the practice. Whuffie itself is never really questioned at all.
It appears that one of three things is happening here:
The author doesn’t question any more than the majority of the characters do, and buys his own propaganda without critical thinking. The “speculation” in “speculative fiction” is pretty watered down and superficial, in this case.
The author is just using these ideas to form a “futuristic” backdrop for an otherwise dull tale. In this case, the “speculation” in “speculative fiction” is notably absent entirely, as the author doesn’t seem to give a shit about the actual implications of the ideas he has injected into the plot at all.
The author has taken a nihilistic approach to these ideas, thinking they’re bad and showing how apathy and willful ignorance render the badness of them irrelevant to the story as a whole. In this case, the “speculation” in “speculative fiction” is definitely there, but he is relentlessly dragging the tale through an ethical and intellectual disintegration toward what amounts to a self-destructive end. He does so in such a manner that it ends with a whimper, instead of a bang, though — leaving it a largely unsatisfying tangle of defeatism and despair.
I’m pretty unexcited by any of the above approaches to this story, especially since I think the #3 approach — that uploading oneself isn’t the same as actually becoming immortal, and ends with the original person’s death, but a major character does it anyway — was much better and more thoroughly handled in William Gibson’s short story The Winter Market. I guess I’ve always identified with Winter Market‘s perspective character, Casey, who asks in the ending paragraphs of that story, about a girl who uploaded the state of her brain into a computer and let the human shell die: “Rubin, if she calls me, is it her?”
Down and Out is not badly written, and I don’t exactly feel like my time was entirely wasted, so I won’t go so far as to give it an actually negative rating, but there’s also nothing about it that specifically prompts me to recommend it for reasons other than just to fill in the space when you don’t have anything better to read.