The house of Mouse: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow

June 28, 2021 Adam Sell

The House of Mouse
By Adam Sell

The Bot Book Review is an occasional series of short reviews of robot-themed books as written by HUMAN team members.

In my life, I’ve been to Disney World three or four times. The Florida one, mind you - the California one is Disneyland. I remember the year they made Cinderella’s castle look like a buttercream abomination. I remember when they portmanteaued the words extraterrestrial and terror to make a ride nobody wanted to go on. I remember when they were pretending that the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride was still only “temporarily” closed.

And maybe, in my youth, I might have said that I’d wanted to live there. It’s possible, kids say all kinds of things when they’re surrounded by The Most Magical Place on Earth (please don’t sue me, Disney, I’m not being facetious).

(Fun fact: my brother is an Imagineer, and he’s told me that all Disney cast members, regardless of what position they hold, are empowered to give away an ice cream or a small toy or something of that scale if a child is crying somewhere in the park. Disney’s attention to detail is such that they don’t want any child’s memory of being at the parks to be tainted by sadness, and a free Dole Whip or Stitch plush is a small price to pay for memories...that turn into return visits.)

With the monorail from the Contemporary—which at the age of single digits seemed like the absolute height of luxury and coolness—it even seemed vaguely feasible to live there.

That’s a part of the premise of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow. Well, a small part of it, I suppose. The much greater premise is that aging and death (including murder!) have become solved problems, and humanity no longer needs to work to support themselves. It’s a virtual—and literal—utopia in which everybody has the opportunity to pursue what they please. There’s not even a real currency anymore, stature is based on “whuffie”, which reflects social standing based on respect from those around you.

That right there is the fly in the ointment - in the absence of a currency-based economy, Doctorow’s world exists with a reputation-based economy, which causes different sorts of problems from those that the almighty dollar created. Get into an argument with someone on the sidewalk? Your whuffie goes down. Help a little old lady cross the street? Your whuffie goes up. It’s reasonable in theory, but in practice it’s basically just today’s social media platforms run amok. What’s more, everybody can check your whuffie level at a glance based on implants they’ve had installed.

Imagine, for a moment, that you don’t have to think about money. Or dying. Ever. What would you do?

Clearly, the answer is to go live at Disney World and maintain the place just for the shits and grins. Such is the existence of the ad-hoc community, the immortals who descended on the resort to live out childhood dreams of never leaving the most magical place on earth. And then to design, develop, and debut new attractions for the fandom, all while continuing to grow your whuffie level for the work.

Now, I’m generally a fairly “willing” reader - I’ll take things at face value until I’ve got a reason not to. It’s probably a big part of why I’ve never been a fan of mysteries: as Mulder and Scully put it, I want to believe. I’ll cop to finding it a bit of a stretch that someone with no death or money concerns would spend their time fixing an amusement park, but something something infinite typewriters and infinite monkeys. At some point, the boredom will win out and you’ll want to do something, and I suppose fixing a ferris wheel is as good as anything out.

But even in this brave new world, fiefdoms will rise. Our hero, Jules, finds himself the keeper of the iconic Haunted Mansion, fending off ambitious ad-hocs from the nearby Hall of Presidents who want to take over the Haunted Mansion and remake it in their image. Jules is murdered twice? three times, maybe? during the course of his battles, losing all of his whuffie and finding himself on the skids (hence the book’s name). He gets by with a little help from his friends, defends his kingdom (see what I did there?) and saves the day for the immortal visitors.

Honestly, I picked this book up at a book swap I hosted last summer in my driveway as a means to see people during quarantine. I wasn’t sure what to expect from it, and even after I’ve finished it, I’m still a little confused at what the takeaway was. Is it that fiefdoms will always rise and fall, even absent the current form of capitalism? Is it that capitalism begets capitalism, even with new currencies supplanting the fiat dollar? Is it that being alive forever would probably suck? I’m not entirely sure. But to that end, is there supposed to be a takeaway? I’m not entirely sure about that, either.

And for anybody playing the home game, no, this book wasn’t as robot-heavy as I initially expected it to be. The Hall of Presidents features robots, as does the revamped Haunted Mansion, but I won’t pretend that it was chock full of automation that qualified it for this project. Alas; you can’t unread a book, you can only hammer away at the round hole into which you’re trying to fit the square peg.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
By Cory Doctorow

Bot Book Review Rating: 4/5 stars

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