When I first started reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, it reminded me a lot of A Clockwork Orange, with all of the new terms of this futuristic world thrown at me--Whuffie, deadheading, ad-hocs. It took some time to get used to this world, but once I did it was an enjoyable read. The odd, new terms and the imaginings of this type of future didn't overtake the novel, but aided in this truly character-driven story.
Money no longer exists, and it's Whuffie that people earn and spend. Whuffie can't be earned with a normal job, but through social interactions, popularity, and respect. "By measuring the thing that money really represented--your personal capital with your friends and neighbors--you more accurately gauged your success" (14). In essence, it's your social standing that earns someone the good life in this future world--one that can plummet with the simple acts of sabotage or murder. Oh, and if you're murdered, they'll just regrow a clone and download all of your memories back into a new body, as long as you've made a back up. In a society where you can no longer die, it's your actions that pay your way through life (or lives). Whuffie makes the world turn.
And it's no different for our main character, Julius. He pings Dan's Whuffie, much higher than his own, the first time they meet. Once in Disney World, another attempt to reinvent himself, he grows his Whuffie by helping his new girlfriend, Lil, by maintaining and improving the rides and demonstrations. Dan shows up with all of his Whuffie gone, in need of help. When Julius brings Dan home, Lil's reaction also demonstrates Julius's perception of Whuffie. "I knew she was pinging his Whuffie and I caught her look of surprised disapproval. Us oldsters who pre-date Whuffie know that it's important; but to the kids, it's the world" (22). Julius has the need to maintain his Whuffie and stay connected, or online, to the technological computer-like thing in his head.
This all changes, though, and goes through ups and downs once Julius is murdered. He becomes obsessed with bringing down the person he thought murdered him. Then he forgets to back up, and soon a glitch is found and he goes offline. He would have to restore to a new body and lose months of striving to one-up the person he thinks had him murdered and months of memories lost with his friend Dan. See, Dan won't be around much longer--he intends to kill himself via lethal injection and finally end his life, once his Whuffie is back up, so he can go out on top. Slowly, Julius's mind also unravels, and his Whuffie plummets after he sabotages the Hall of Presidents.
No Whuffie left, Julius only has Dan to turn to. Yet Dan is the one holding onto a secret--he was the one who had Julius murdered. The person he had stuck around for, not wanting to lose his memories for, was the person who betrayed him. Yet this last year of Julius's life, he'd changed and grown enough to realize that it didn't matter. "I couldn't make any sense of my mind. Dan, taking care of me, helping me, sticking up for me, carrying this horrible shame with him all along. Ready to die, wanting to go with a clean conscience. 'You're forgiven,' I said. And it was true" (197). He even forgives the girl Dan hired to murder him. And his reaction to her at the end shows that he doesn't hold much stock in Whuffie anymore. "I wondered if we could be friends when it was all over. She probably didn't care much about Whuffie, one way or another" (200). Julius becomes her friend and companion, and they head up into space to continue their lives together.
This character growth was the core story in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. The science and the futuristic world were only used to aid in showing this character growth. And who doesn't like to fantasize about living in Disney World?
Side Note: This book is currently available for free download through iBooks.
Doctorow, Cory. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2003.
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