The second thing that strikes a reader about Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, right after the engagingly lurid neon cover, is its size. In an era where the average sf novel runs to between 300 and 400 pages, to encounter one with a mere 200 is almost a shock.
Those few pages are packed full of the geekish post-singularity sf that Doctorow has become renowned for. Our hero Jules, a young centenarian, lived through the fall of scarcity economics, and the rise of the ‘Bitchun Society’ that replaced it. Reminiscent of the reputation indexes of many websites and forums, one’s status in the Bitchun Society is determined by one’s Whuffie quota – an index of one’s reputation for doing things that others approve of. Whuffie can be gained by performing righteous (or simply bitchun) acts that benefit or entertain the society as a whole; it can be expended on the luxuries of a post-scarcity economy where no-one has to go without the essentials.
Right now, Jules’ Whuffie is pretty good. He’s part of an ‘ad-hoc’ – a kind of peer-to-peer worker’s syndicate – that runs and maintains the Haunted House attraction in Disney World. Theme parks are still a big deal in the Bitchun Society, and there is great kudos for those who keep them running and improving against the odds. Things get a little more difficult for Jules and his cohorts when he is murdered – he has to be re-uploaded into a new body, for a start. Jules instantly suspects the leader of a rival ad-hoc that runs the Hall of Presidents, and begins investigating the situation.
In his consuming rush to get to the bottom of the mystery, and at the same time improve the Haunted House to a degree that the new adjustments to the Hall of Presidents will seem trivial, he decides not to get himself rebooted in order not to lose the memories since his last back-up. Problem is, his implants are broken thanks to a sabotage attempt gone wrong, and he is becoming more than a little unhinged – to the extent that his friends abandon him almost completely, and no-one will believe a word he says.
Fiction being fiction, everything works out in the end – though, satisfyingly enough, not in the way the reader might expect. At its core, the story itself is very much a human interest piece. The real difference with Doctorow, the thing that sets him aside from mainstream fiction and to some extent sf as well, is in the telling. He has a breezy style of narrative that somehow renders everything in rotoscoping without losing any of the emotional impact – a style that gels well with the Disney setting.
And despite the lack of pages, there’s no lack of story either. How does he get away with writing books half the size that run the same distance? Rudy Rucker sums it up best in his back-cover blurb, where he says, “[Doctorow] starts out at the point where older sf writers’ speculations end.” Indeed he does – but what he also does is leave aside all the exposition about the environment his stories are set in, and gets straight to the point with telling the stories of the characters. He’s not so interested in the hows and whys of the Bitchun Society – it just works, y’know?
The end result is a science fiction novel that has all the ideas of the ‘hard’ section of the genre without all the filigree and baggage – which puts Doctorow in a fairly small and unique category. This is the sort of sf that the purist might find a little too light and airy – possibly even distastefully so. But it’s also the sort of sf that one might be able to coax a non-genre reader to read and enjoy – think of a young Canadian iteration of Jeff Noon, perhaps. What this strange demographic Venn diagram will mean for Doctorow’s long-term success remains to be seen. But considering the number of pies he has a finger in, he’ll probably be around for some time yet – and as you can get practically everything he’s written in free electronic format, there’s little reason to not give him some Whuffie and sample the wares.