Saturday, December 22, 2007

Recent Reading: Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom

“Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom” by Cory Doctorow is in my opinion the very best kind of sci-fi novel: the kind that makes you think. It’s enjoyable of course. Well-plotted, good characters but there’s something else. The society shown, the effects of this culture of the people you grow to care about, it forces you to wonder…..How long would I last in a world like this?

See full post for answer and a very rambling summary of my thoughts after reading this story.

For myself, the answer is Not Long. While the tech enhancements and body modifications would have their appeal, I don’t know if I’d enjoy a world built in reputation and public opinion. To me there are few rights more sacred the the right to be left alone, to be unpopular, to be unlikeable. And those rights do not truly exist in this world. “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”* The problem as demonstrated by the main character is that when you have an unpopular opinion most people cannot tell the crazy from the crazy-but-true. And consensus while tolerant isn’t the same as liberty. The individuality of this world is an affected state not a state of being individual.

Even someone like Zora, the crazy transhuman ex-wife, with all her mania for wonderful body modifications: What Does She DO? Constantly changing herself but not really accomplishing anything by it. So far gone that to lose easy physical modification, to work for the more demanding mental changes into a partner/wife drives her mad. She exists to change but not to strive. To be unique without purpose.

I simply cannot get over how listless these people were. Lil especially seemed to lack any driving passion, any of the zing! that greatness truly depends on. Even her parents who thought themselves so above others because of what they had accomplished, they too were focused more on change than value. Perhaps this is the yet another step toward the observation that “The American lives for ambition, the future…. Life for him is always becoming, never being”**.

And I wonder….The story repeatedly makes the point that the Bitchun Society didn’t have to convince people, just outlast them. But it also makes a point that those raised in Bitchun lack some ability to act against the crowd. Those that do still have it are relatively isolated from the crowd like the Saneep character and even then he would only act when he had a socially acceptable alibi. What would a society like this do when faced with something like John Ringo’s Posleen or Stargate’s Gou’auld? What about the people that actually do things like compose symphonies or design spacecraft? How do people whose pursuits depend on being challenged and building on past failures as well as successes exist in a society built solely on comfort? Would they all gravitate to the edges where they can be a part of the crowd without submitting to it?

Another weird connection my brain made while reading: The rebooting into a cloned body reminded me vaguely of Pensieves and Obliviates in the Harry Potter Universe. A year or so ago, I read an absolutely brilliant fanfiction about a Muggle woman that Charlie Weasley falls in love with. The author did a brilliant job of showing the latent and pervasive prejudice of the Wizarding world; how even a family like the Weasleys doesn’t really react well to a full-on Muggle in their midst. There’s also an interesting sub-plot about how Wizards are using Pensieves to remove memories of the War against Voldemort. The couple have an acrimonious break-up and according to the rules of the Wizarding world she has to be Obliviated. The Muggle love interest made more than a few scathing comments about how Wizards just remove unpleasant memories or things they can’t deal with instead of, well, dealing with them. She is Obliviated but takes steps to record her knowledge before losing her memory. As she finds the clues she left for herself, she starts to piece together her lost memories and feelings for Charlie. I don’t quite remember how it ends but I found the story quite engrossing at the time.

Julius’ insistence at not re-booting, not losing the recent terrible experiences he’d had reminded me very much of that story. And the character of that Muggle woman. Both had terrible experiences but couldn’t give them up, not even if if would make them happy. I very much understand that motivation. My life thus far has been for the most part one remarkably free of strife or trouble. I have not sought out adventure or daring nor risked true failure. However, I would not erase any bad, embarrassing or humiliating experience of mine. Some of those I deserved, some I did not and perhaps, the self-knowledge to know the difference is worth the cost to me. But if that cost goes up, what would I do?

In conclusion, read this story. It prodded uncomfortable thoughts and left my mind whirring in a way I’m not entirely sure of but it was a very good story.

*George Orwell
**Albert Einstein – Full Quote: “The American lives for ambition, the future, more than the European. Life for him is always becoming, never being.” – “Some Notes on My American Impressions” from The World As I See It, 1949

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