Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

I read this book last week and have been meaning to write a review of it, but I have been less inspired the longer I wait (I’ve even since read Fight Club as well)…but I checked out the current reviews on amazon and in responding to one I will hopefully manage to dig a couple cents out my pocket:

With endorsements from Larry Lessig, Eric Raymond and Bruce sterling, I thought I couldn't go wrong. I discovered that I could. So I got wiser, but not happpy about it. The story is set in a future world, where you "save" yourself once in a while and reload yourself into a new body when anything goes wrong. It's also a world which is not based on money but on reputation votes (called wuffies). The scary part is that you can check anyone's reputation any time, and people discriminate against you for that. The guy lives in Disneyworld, where it is maintained by volunteers. So Doctrow got his idea from free software development models, and made it into a story, but not too well. For example, the reputation is not supposed to be money but it turns out that if you have high scores, you can actually hire people to do dirty work ... well, then that's effectively money itself. Besides, if you think it out, things are really unclear. I have a high reputation for my translation and Japanese writing skills, but my girlfriend skill sucks. So what's my overall reputation?

This reviewer’s quick sum-up of the book is decent so I include it here. This last para makes the first point I’ll antagonize. The reputation currency in Down and Out is called Whuffie, and it is absolutely made out to be the money of the time. It is said towards the beginning of the book that money was done away with, but it is clear that Whuffie is simply the new currency. The interesting result of this is that it is an emotional currency–rejection is not just a emotional blow, but a lifestyle modification as well. It is clear that Whuffie is bestowed by others and used up within the economy (late in the novel the main character has his car taken away once his Whuffie becomes very low). Exploring this type of economy is one of the main contributions of the story, in fact Cory must be laughing to himself when such an economy is argued for rationally, now.

The attitude toward death is also not well thought out. You can get re-incarnated anytime, so death shouldn't be a big deal...but this guy is very upset because he was killed, and engages in petty sabotage against the person who he thought was behind it. But when the real killer is found, 10 minutes later, he goes on a date with her. What?

The other main thread of the book is the society that has resulted from the elimination of death. Because you cannot die but of your own choosing (choosing not to be “restored”), many things about society have changed. The hit-woman killed the main character. So what? He’s restored from backup and his only concern is Why would someone want to kill me? When the hit-woman is found out, her Whuffie goes down, and her confession endears her to her victim. The paradigm shift it takes to understand this deathless society is quite severe considering the fact that almost everything about our current society revolves around the idea of death, and Cory does a fine job taking us along down that path.

You can read the rest of the negative review on Amazon if you want, but my point is that these two ideas that form the crux of the environment in which the story takes place, they are the point of the story. Cory could tell 100 more stories within this universe he has created, and each would be interesting in the way the characters existed within a world so similar, and yet completely opposite, of the one in which we live now. When the entire economy is based on an abstration such as reputation and death is a nonissue, what do our lives look like? What things become issues? When you know your life will go on indefinately, what do you do with yourself? When even the most Whuffie-poor are rich enough to travel and pursue whatever they want, what do you pursue? When even the most Whuffie-rich can lose it all in a failed scheme, where do you find security? What motivates you? I think Cory addresses all these questions well–for example our protagonist finds security in his job at Disney World and in his relationship with his lover, but when it all goes to hell he just starts over. Nothing surprises him. He’s on his 5th life. He’s been around.

Perhaps the scariest thing about this universe Cory created was the cold indifference such a utopia can create. I had the three worst dreams I’ve ever had in my life, three nights in a row during the time I was reading this book. Coincidence?

What would really happen in a world where we have objectified an emotion into the economy and eliminated death? It may not be as utopian and Cory would make it out to be.