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Copyright

Title: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Author: Cory Doctorow
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 0765304368
Pages: 206
Price: $22.95
Rating: 88%

What makes for good science fiction? Individual tastes vary. Some readers prefer hard science fiction, where technology (that is, applied science) makes the impossible, possible. There are readers who prefer rich characterizations, and still other readers who prefer event-driven stories, where the protagonist struggles to right some cosmic wrong. And then there are those readers who read stories that investigate some over-arching principle, or idea. Orson Scott Card, author of science fiction touchstone Ender's Game, often refers to a story's MICE quotient: the mix of milieu, idea, character, and event.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow's first novel, is in the first place a story about a milieu, and in the second a story about an idea. Yes, there are characters and an "event", but neither of those elements are as well-developed as the environment and the ideas that go with it.

Cory Doctorow is Outreach Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group founded by Mitch Kapor, John Perry Barlow, and John Gilmore, three forward-thinkers who want us to

[i]magine a world where technology can empower us all to share knowledge, ideas, thoughts, humor, music, words and art with friends, strangers and future generations.

That world is here and now, made possible with the electronic network -- the Internet -- with the power to connect us all. And future developments in technology will enable us to access information and communicate with others in even more powerful ways.

But governments and corporate interests worldwide are trying to prevent us from communicating freely through new technologies, just as when those in positions of power controlled the production and distribution of -- or even burned -- books they did not want people to read in the Middle Ages. But only by fighting for our rights to speak freely whatever the medium -- whether books, telephones, or computers -- can we protect and enhance the human condition. [http://www.eff.org/about/]

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom takes place in a world where technology has solved life's ills--literally. Everyone who chooses to can have a high-bandwidth connection to a shared network, money has been all but replaced by Whuffie (Doctorow's name for reputation capital and probably a reference to Whitfield Diffie, the cryptography pioneer), groups form and dissolve in an "ad-hocracy", and even death can be overcome by growing a replacement body to be imbued with a backup copy of your brain.

So, to paraphrase the question asked in Star Trek: The Next Generation by a cryogenically preserved financier who awakened in the 24th century to find that life's struggles were over, what is left to fight for? The answer: the Haunted Mansion at Disney World. In fact, it's important enough that someone killed Doctorow's protagonist, Jules, over it. Jules is a threat to a new group that has re-done the Hall of Presidents, removing the animatronics and replacing them with a neural imprint, where visitors "become" Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington. While this group claims they have no plans to do the same to the Haunted Mansion, Jules suspects they do, and fights to keep the visceral Rube Goldberg quality of his piece of the park intact.

While relatively short (my guess is that Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom clocks in at around 55,000 words), Doctorow packs a lot of action into this book. For those of you who are familiar with the technologies he describes, you'll find the early going familiar, easy reading. For those of you who aren't familiar with reputation capital or ad-hoc organizations, don't worry: the exposition is handled well enough that you'll understand everything in due course.

Curtis D. Frye (cfrye@teleport.com) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews.  He is also the author of three online courses and ten books , including Privacy-Enhanced Business from Quorum Books.