After enjoying a short story by Doctorow included in an anthology of cyberpunk stories I reviewed on here a few weeks ago, I decided to finally give his original novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, another go.
Because of my love of weird books and Disney World, this had originally felt like a fantastic idea for a read for me, but when I first picked it up ages ago, I just couldn’t get into it. I was probably in a weird headspace about other authors finding more success than me or some other stupidity, and realizing that, I had hoped the second read would be better.
First things first, I actually finished the book this time, which says something about my mindset being a bit off back then. Secondly, I mostly enjoyed it. I mean, this book is overly complicated in its attempts to fit within the cyberpunk realm while also cramming the location of Disney World in. Not that the setting doesn’t work. It mostly does. If there was one corporation I feel most fits within the realm of the cyberpunk genre, it’s certainly Disney. It’s just that, at times, it felt as though the setting was crammed in afterward.
What I mean by that is that this book could have worked anywhere, without the Disney World references. But, Doctorow includes so many detailed references to locations at the parks that one can’t help but wonder how deeply in love with the parks this author is. Sure, he apparently thinks Sleeping Beauty Castle is in Florida, as opposed to Cinderella Castle, but his inclusion of the Utilidors, specific rooms in the Contemporary hotel, the walkways that lead from park to resorts, as well as backstage areas in places like the Hall of Presidents or Haunted Mansion showcases that this author (mostly) knows his Disney World.
But like I said, this book doesn’t need Disney World. If anything that’s just a marketing technique to bring folks like me into wanting to read the book, kind of like those Kingdom Keepers books that Disney was heavily promoting a few years back (which, if I remember correctly from my read of the first book in that series, actually takes a lot of notes from Doctorow’s novel here). However, the lack of need for this specific setting probably speaks more to Doctorow’s ability to build a world than it does for his need to shamelessly include an international icon. Within these pages which tell a tale of intrigue and murder inside the park gates, we learn a lot about this possible future for the world, where people no longer die and are, in many ways, more digital than analog.
Which is where, I think, the true beauty in this story lies. Here we see a story about people debating whether or how to update classic Disney World attractions from their classic versions into cool new things, while we also have people still struggling with the idea of becoming less people and more computer. We see a battle for humanity happen within the pages of this book, where murder doesn’t mean all that much when they can just clone a new version of you from a backup. Where doctors no longer need to know how to doctor, because it’s far easier and cheaper to simply make a new body. And we see a place where money is replaced with prestige, meaning all that really matters is what other people think about you.
While I think the book stumbles along the way of telling the story it’s trying to tell, and the Disney World addition really only served as an opportunity for some easy world building and building of an audience of people who like the idea of a book being set in a place they love, Doctorow’s writing really shines through in this amazing parallelism of a battle between keeping things the way they are, or moving forward toward the future simply because we can.
And, if you’re in to cyberpunk or even just want to see what the future of attractions like Hall of Presidents or Haunted Mansion could be, it’s totally worth a read.