Oct 8, 2006

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom - thoughts

When it comes to fiction, especially concerning the genre of the fantastic, there must be some thought given to the suspension of disbelief when it comes to setting. It is relatively easy for any reader to buy into the worlds created by ‘realistic’ authors such as Carol Shields and Roddy Doyle, as they fashion planes of existence that mirror day-to-day existence; it does not take a huge leap of faith to believe in stories of the mundane, as these are worlds in which we all find ourselves in, to varying degrees. Likewise, it does not stretch the imagination too far to be able to embrace, say, the gritty universes of Ed McBain, or the boggy trenches of Erich Maria Remarque. While these particular literary planes are personally unfamiliar to most, they are not outside the realm of possibility; we can believe these worlds exist, even if we have no first-hand knowledge, because we read the news, we watch television, we are aware that such people and events occur, even if they never touch us personally. Consequently, an author could skimp on details, or spend less time in the depiction of setting, as the reader can be expected to fill in missing elements with personal observations. This is not to impugn that authors are necessarily lazy when it comes to setting; a truly fine author will always pay attention to the details of setting. My life would be a little emptier without Raymond Chandler’s elegiac L.A., Doyle’s vivid Dublin, or Rohinton Mistry’s effervescent India. It’s just, well, a touch easier to cheat a bit in present-day realistic fiction. So what if the author never actually wrote that the police officer carried a gun? He’s a police officer, we all know they carry guns, and so, the bridge between the reader and the story is established.

Not so the fabulists. Where fantasy and science fiction is concerned, the world the authors create can make or break the story. It doesn’t matter if the characters are sterling, or the plot scintillating; if the reader doesn’t buy the world, at least in theory, then the story as a whole will never fully engage the reader. I could never get fully engaged with Tolkien’s dialogue, but his Middle-Earth was intensely real to me. Philip K. Dick’s decrepit world of rampant kipple and fake animals continues to haunt my dreams, and seems more real, more vital, with each passing year. Contrast these with the sci-fi shoot-‘em-up universes of John Ringo, an energetic writer whose stories entertain somewhat in the manner of lesser Star Trek episodes, but never linger in the dark recesses of your soul in the same way that those of Thomas M. Disch and Theodore Sturgeon do. Susanna Clarke recently wove a miraculous England of enchantment and magic in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, a phantasmagoria of fairies, sprites, and spells that never felt anything less than real. Eric Idle, on the other hand, collapsed into tedium with The Road to Mars, a slightly humourous, Douglas Adams-lite sci-fi comedy that never convinced the reader that what was occurring was even remotely plausible, even to the characters that roamed its pages.

It’s not easy, is what I’m trying to say. Cory Doctorow sure makes it look that way, though.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Doctorow’s first novel, is a spectacularly inventive and incisive look at a future that, although implausible, is never outside the realm of possibility. Like the best authors, he crafts a world that functions on its own, and characters who behave as if this world is the way it has always been. Doctorow is not interested in presenting a thesis on future possibilities for humanity; neither (as anyone familiar with his fabulous work with Creative Commons, the Internet, and his website BoingBoing can attest) is he ignorant of the many pathways our species currently finds itself at the crossroads of. Like the best of Dick, Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson et al., Doctorow creates a future world to subtly comment on the past, i.e. our present.

In Doctorow’s future, death, by a fashion, is now obsolete. Technology allows the citizenry to archive their memories, creating a backup. Should the person happen to die, a clone body, complete with memory, can be up-and-running in less than a week. As well, people now can “deadhead;” that is, they can put themselves into suspended animation of a sort, hibernating for a few centuries, then waking up to see what’s new. In short, death is meaningless.

As well, Earth is now run by the “Bitchun society,” whereby energy is plentiful, labour is unnecessary, and money is archaic. Instead of money, people guide their lives by the amount of “Wuffie” they have, a continually updated ratings system that measures how much respect and admiration people have for you. The higher the rating, the easier it is to get by, as a high Wuffie ensures that you easily obtain items considered scarce, you get the best tables in restaurants, and you can jump to the head of the queue. It’s a strange, unique, and remarkably realized civilization, and the highest praise one can give Doctorow’s achievement is that it all seems remarkably plausible.

Into this utopia Doctorow drops Jules, an intelligent young man on his third life who has finally earned enough Wuffie to obtain his dream job: working at the Haunted Mansion at Disneyworld. Disneyworld is an anomaly, a perfectly intact antique of the twentieth century that is now run by rival ad-hoc committees that compete to gather the most Wuffie from their guests. While working on keeping the amusement ride open and operating, he also has to contend with plans a rival ad-hoc has to update the rides from their current/classic animatronic style to direct neural imprinting.

It is a strange, strange world, wholly distinctive yet highly familiar, and Doctorow layers it all together so perfectly as to make it seem effortless. As Jules becomes more involved, and more unhinged – he is murdered during the course of the plot, after all, and it is a mark of Doctorow’s complexity and style that revealing this does not ruin the story in the slightest – he realizes that technological advance is not inherently a good thing. In its way, Down and Out has an old-fashioned soul.

Doctorow is not a spectacular wordsmith; his true strength lies in story, not style, and consequently Down and Out lacks the lyrical quality of contemporaries such as Stephenson or Jeff Noon. But Down and Out, like the best sci-fi fiction, feels completely real. Doctorow’s first novel is a gift, a kick, and a reminder of what the best science fiction can achieve.

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