Monday, October 09, 2006

A little geek reading

I just finished reading a short sci-fi novel by Cory Doctorow entitled Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I'd heard mentions of the story (published in 2003) here and there, and I was already familiar with Cory's work for BoingBoing and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, so after some recent appearances on This Week in Tech, I decided to sit down and give Mr. Doctorow a chance.

The man has some interesting views on copyright and intellectual freedoms, and puts his money where his mouth is. Each of his four books (including Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) is available for download . . . free. I know what you're thinking: he's only doing this because his own mother wouldn't buy a copy. To the contrary, he seems to be doing very well in that department. But Doctorow has also experimentally published his novels under a Creative Commons license which allows for reproduction, distribution, and even, gasp, "remixes" without his review or explicit approval. This seems like any normal author's worst nightmare, but he claims that going this route has his career "turning over like a goddamned locomotive engine". Geek Happens is rocking a CC license too, you know.

Enough about Cory, on to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. The story takes place in the 22nd century, a time when energy is free, death has been defeated, and no one has to go hungry. But don't get the wrong idea. This is not some Utopian society where everyone sits around singing and holding hands. With the daily struggles of scraping together an existence gone, people are free to do as they wish; and human nature being what it is, that still involves violence, envy, and the occasional act of kindness. People band together in "ad-hoc" groups to accomplish goals, and traditional currency has been replaced by "Whuffie", a reputation-based currency reflecting the esteem and respect given to you by your peers. Most of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom takes place in, you guessed it, Disney's Magic Kingdom. The setting is important, as it both reflects how this new society functions (ad-hoc groups, always-on networking), yet reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Doctorow's style is very laid back.
He avoids long, drawn-out dissertations on the events that molded this future society. Instead, he mentions concepts in passing, and expands upon them as the story unfolds. Post-scarcity economics, deadheading, and the Bitchun Society are all explained before it's over. His focus seems to be on telling a story that just so happens to take place in the future. Technology plays a role, but more to describe circumstances than to awe the reader with visionary ideas.

Overall, I really enjoyed
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. It's a great piece and, because it's on the short side, it doesn't require a huge time commitment to get through (I read it during my lunch breaks in just a few days). I plan to read through the rest of Cory Doctorow's novels in the next few weeks. I'll keep you posted as I go through them. In the meantime, download your copy here and let me know what you think.


Joseph said...

Have you seen ? It is modelled after the Bitchun Society as described in the book. Real p2p whuffie is implemented over skype.

Alex said...

I did see it mentioned on BoingBoing. Looks interesting.