Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sulzer SF/F: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

 Went to a great discussion of Cory Doctorow's "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" (2003) at the Conrad Sulzer Science Fiction & Fantasy club last night. I've read some of Doctorow's other work, and I'm a frequent reader of Boing Boing (for which he is an editor and contributor), but this was my first time reading this particular novel. "Down and Out" is a kind of romp, mostly light-hearted but with some heavy ideas, through a post-scarcity, arguably post-human Disney World.

Doctorow is one of the leading voices in the fight for a smarter system of intellectual copyright and digital rights, by the way, and published this novel under a Creative Commons license that makes it freely available for download, as are many of his other works.

Most of the ideas we brought up got tossed around the table pretty evenly, and we referenced a lot of other works, so I'll try to list those in case anyone wants to look them up. Possible spoilers below!

"Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" takes place in the relatively near future (in the vicinity of a century), after the world has switched over to "the Bitchun Society", a post-scarcity economy that seems to have replaced most formal structures with adhocracies. Furthermore, read/write technologies for the human brain, coupled with rapid cloning abilities, have enabled people to essentially live indefinitely, using "backup and restore" to save their memories for implantation in a new body after death or other trauma. Our protagonist, Julian, is part of a group maintaining the Magic Kingdom, who gets caught up in a rival group's conspiracy to take over management of some of the attractions.

There was a general consensus among the group that the plot and characterization are quite weak here, but the book (or at least discussion of the book) are still very entertaining because of the ideas it tosses around. We compared it to a sort of caricature of golden-age SF (thinking specifically of Heinlein or Anderson short stories): two or three really interesting ideas, and the plot is just there as an excuse to talk about them.

There were a lot of moments in "Down and Out" where we felt like characters did things without motivation, just because the story needed to go that direction. We brought up  a bunch of comparisons, including:
  • "Marathon Man" (1976 Schlesinger film adaption of Goldman's book.)
  • The TV series "Arrow" (2012-) where the writers frequently force narrative direction changes by having characters announce things along the lines of "I've just decided that Character A is responsible for X", even though it often makes very little sense. And no-one calls them out on it.
  • Hitchcock's 1963 film "The Birds", which I haven't seen in so long that I'm not sure of the weak plot/character comparison, but which launched us into a discussion of the Daphne du Maurier, the author of the original story, her family and relation to J.M. Barrie of "Peter Pan" fame.
  • I also thought of the trope of characters acting really stupidly in horror movies, because otherwise it wouldn't work. Thought specifically of the satire of this in Whedon/Goddard's 2012 "The Cabin in the Woods", when the characters start to very sensibly stick together, watch each others' backs, and team up on the monsters, but are then chemically/physically manipulated into the "no let's break up, cover more ground that way" clearly-bad strategy.
Weak plot, character, and lack of descriptive writing aside, still lots to talk about here. We spent a long time talking about "Whuffie" the "reputation currency" of the book. One of my main questions is: how is a reputation currency different from our current system? The main answer seems to be just speed and accuracy of valuation (based on immediate likes/dislikes of other people's actions, creations, etc.) rather than the much more ponderous and variously-effed-up economic system we have today; in pure theory the invisible hand of market forces driven by human desires would work pretty much like Whuffie. I was kind of stuck by the fact that "rock bottom" in Whuffie terms is, indeed, the bottom--there's no debt. Furthermore, Whuffie "poverty" is only in terms of reputation (and therefore one's ability to engage in certain kinds of projects), but not material needs. The potential of living at near-zero Whuffie scores reminds me a bit of the nuchnibs in Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" (1974).

Which brings us to group dynamics in the adhocracies, which I find really fascinating. A lot of the big pivotal confrontation scenes in "Down and Out" feel like popularity contests, or the kind of weird, disorganized, emotional/socially weighted decision-making process that happens in like a large high-school or undergraduate club. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though we did talk about the kinds of actions this system would limit. Unpopular things just wouldn't go through, and if leadership is based minute-to-minute on consensus and the group's likes and dislikes, then there will be a short-term trend towards dramatic, charismatic acts on the part of leaders, but a SEVERE medium to long-term trend towards bland, middle-of-the-road inoffensiveness. kind of like modern democracy with one's finger on the fast-forward button, yes? We talked for a bit about how our society might be different if political offices were more directly and immediately tied to popular consensus--personally I think that it would be extremely hard to get a majority "like" for almost any military action, or things like mass surveillance, torture, etc. But we also talked about how there are lots of good and necessary things that will be unpopular, and how they would be very hard to get done if everyone got a chance to review and vote on them. Both sides of this argument are only possible in our current system because huge chunks of our government are very insulated from the election process (appointed or otherwise non-elected people and branches), and even elected offices are very insulated from public opinion, compared to an instant appraisal of actions in a system like Whuffie.

This is just one of the areas where we talked about the book as satire, but we can't quite decide what Doctorow's satirical targets are. Some of his novels have quite clear positions and messages, but this one felt (to me at least) more like he was just playing around with some interesting ideas.

We started listing some SF exploring similar "post-stuff" ideas: post-scarcity, post-human, post-traditional government. A few that stuck or occurred to me later:
  • "The Dispossessed", already mentioned--Le Guin's "ambiguous utopia" of a sort of anarchic society is definitely not post-scarcity (there are strong indications that the extreme hardship of life on Annares is a factor in its survival), but has a lot of similarity to Doctorow's adhocracies with its self-organizing synods. Le Guin also explores the notion of war & other evils only being possible in hierarchic societies in various other works.
  • "Snow Crash" (1992) by Neal Stephenson. Doctorow's clearly a fan, and actually references it directly in this novel (there's a "Snow Crash Parade" at one point with the sword-swinging Hiro Protagonist and raps by Sushi-K). "Snow Crash" is set in a world in which governments have almost entirely vanished, replaced by corporate "franchulates" and "quasi-national entities"; extremely satirical of bureaucracies, it characterizes them as viruses.
  • Much of Peter F. Hamilton's SF is set in basically post-scarcity times, with near-nonsensical technological abilities, body swapping/regeneration etc. I have to make the disclaimer that Hamilton's politics (sexual, racial/cultural) make his books almost unreadable for me, though I managed to enjoy the "Night's Dawn" trilogy when I was younger and less critical.
  • A lot of Greg Egan's work has explored mind-copying, what that implies for self and identity. And very smartly--I'd particularly suggest "Diaspora" (1997), "Permutation City"(1994), and "Zendegi" (2010). Do not come to Egan looking for something light, but do expect something excellent, intelligent, and thought-provoking.
  • The more I think about this, the more it's clear that these ideas have become so widely-embraced in SF in the last decade or so that a list could get crazy. Two last, strongly-recommended titles:
    • "2312" by Kim Stanley Robinson (2012). Wonderful novel exploring a ton of themes; post-humanity and consensus/reputation as bases for action are major points.
    • "Accelerando" by Charlie Stross (2005). Stross & Doctorow clearly have a lot of the same things on their minds (they later co-wrote "The Rapture of the Nerds" [2012] together); "Accelerando" is a fast-paced, spitballing examination of humanity moving to posthumanity, as well as lots of economy and technology.
As we talked about the book, I was increasingly struck with some of the sinister implications--a sort of latent totalitarian dystopia. The Bitchun society seems to be the only society left to humans--one of our characters, Dan, became famous precisely because of his "missionary work" getting all the non-Bitchun societies to join in. This is a creepy eradication of all different ways of thinking/living, especially when you consider the Whuffie's enforcement of popularity--a kind of bland but inescapable mob rule, looked at from a certain angle. We also pointed out that the title is in reference to "Down and Out in Paris and London" (1933) by George Orwell (who knows from dystopia), which makes us think Doctorow's satirizing what "poverty" means in a place of extreme basic wealth, but also of course pulls "1984" to mind.

A major creepy issue for me, the more I thought about it, is the "backup and restore" approach to immortality. This is weird on a couple levels. First off, according to a native concept of what one's "life" is, this is not immortality--"you" still die every time. We brought up the "transporter death" problem of Star Trek, particularly as humorously explored in China Mieville's "Kraken" (2010). Secondly, going along with the "only one way to live" issue, is that EVERYBODY uses backup-and-restore now ("doctors" don't treat major problems, just encourage rebooting), because all the individuals that resisted died out (societies that resisted were proselytized in).

Finally, there's the issue of using this technology to avoid reality. A number of different characters in "Down and Out" just jump back to an early backup to completely erase a period they don't want to remember. This is pretty problematic/terrifying considered as something the whole society has access to all the time. We brought up the 2004 Gondry/Kaufman film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", and the Santayana quote--I incorrectly thought it was Nietzsche, but it's actually from "The Life of Reason":

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (1905, emphasis mine)
Included the larger quote because, squicky "savage" clause aside, the perpetual infancy produced by avoiding the past seems relevant here--particularly given something about this novel that I kept forgetting and remembering every few pages:

THIS IS ALL ABOUT DISNEY WORLD. Less than that, even: it's about management of a few specific attractions at one amusement park, and it doesn't even have the added tension of anyone's livelihoods/survival being tied to it. I kept remembering that, and it kept being funny--it was like at any point I had a button I could press to highlight how trivial the whole plot is.

I was also pleased to discover that I am not the only one to be horrified/bored-unto-death by amusement parks, especially Disney.  I know Doctorow really is fascinated with it, especially the Haunted Mansion, but he also seems aware of some of the weirdness of it--the culty demeanor of "castmembers", the description of guests as "bright and cheerful and ready for a day of steady, hypermediated fun" (loc. 1608 in my ebook).

We also talked a bit about age-gap relationships and whether or to what extent people really mature. I'm not denying that people do change and grow up, but I also think the case is frequently overstated--we tend to remember individuals who typify a certain "age" behavior, and fail to notice that lots of people kind of have the same level of "maturity" (probably the wrong word) for much of their life. We talked about this in reference to the difference between real and apparent age in "Down and Out"--I find it kind of fascinating that you could pick an apparent age that fits your purposes, like a high-powered CEO type picking the energy of a 22 year-old, or a young doctor picking a comfortingly grandfatherly visage.

Don't know if I agree with this, but I remembered this "appropriate age" dating formula: (Your Age/2)+9=Youngest acceptable date. Flip that for the other direction, although it's often tweaked for sexist reasons. Intriguing that "Down and Out" primarily uses percentile differences in age rather than absolute numbers, think I've seen something a little similar with the long-lived characters of Iain M. Banks' "Culture" or Robert Reeds' "Greatship" novels and stories.

We also talked for a bit about technology and innovation, how that connects to the post-scarcity world. I'm a big fan of the idea that sometimes it's not "necessity is the mother of invention", but rather the other way around. Sometimes that's because of manufactured needs and desires--much/most of consumer capitalism--but there's also this funny, positive side I really like, where creative people with leisure time have the ability to pursue new artistic/scientific ideas, not to answer a pressing need but because it's neat, and then only later do people buy it and make it part of society's fabric.

A great discussion! We also started launching into a post-discussion of films, including the recent "Imitation Game" Turing biopic, which then looped around to discussion of C.S. Lewis by way of Egan (there he is again!) excellent short story, "Oracle" (2000), which imagines Turing saved from death and interacting with a Luddite but still sympathetic Lewis. I feel like Lewis's "Space Trilogy" has been popping up on my radar more and more recently, and I'd loved to discuss it at a club that could talk about the science-fictional/theological/philosophical sides of it.

The Conrad Sulzer group's next meeting will be March 24th, title TBD but will be fantasy from a short list circulated to members. There is also discussion of the club moving to a monthly instead of bimonthly schedule.

No comments:

Post a Comment