Red Hour Orgy

By Philip Shropshire

 

Reviews of:

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

0wnz0red

Charisma

Animatrix

 

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"Returning to Walt Disney World was a homecoming for me. My parents had brought me the first time when I was all of ten, just as the first inklings of the Bitchun society were trickling into everyone's consciousness: the death of scarcity, the death of death, the struggle to rejig an economy that had grown up focused on nothing but scarcity and death. My memories of the trip are dim but warm, the balmy Florida climate and a sea of smiling faces punctuated by magical, darkened moments riding in OmniMover cars, past diorama after diorama."

--from "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom"

 

You have no idea just how much Iíd like to say gratuitously nice and profanely praiseworthy things about Cory Doctorowís new novel ďDown and Out in the Magic KingdomĒ. Iíd like to say this a book that has transformed my life and sent me onward to the One True Whuffie path. Or: this book made me rename my cat. Or: this book made me run into the streets where I would garble the more poetic passages to frightened strangers as I spastically threw about Old School floppy disks imprinted with the novelís entirety into the center of the thriving metro crowd. Riots and consternation would then ensue as the infectious literary meme spread and grew like Greg Bearís smart cells in "Blood Music".

But no. I canít say those things because theyíre not true.

To be honest, I think the novel isnít as successful as it could be moreso because of its ambition rather than the faults of its very talented author. Truth be told, it fails in more interesting ways than most stories that succeed.


The novel takes place about 100 years from now. And despite some off world trips, most of it happens in a futuristic Disney World where your wealth is determined by the citizenís ďWhuffieĒ. Itís as if mod points define your wealth and your status. So, if youíre a mean spirited troll your money wonít save you because you wonít have any money. Your karma is bad, Mr. Gates, and you're broke. Itís kind of hard to die because you have backup clones ready to pick up where you left off, depending on how often and responsibly you backed up your data. For example, if you didnít backup your memory for a month and you die, your last month never happened, which happens to be one of the bookís pivotal plot points: When is death appropriate and wouldnít it be nice to have a choice about it?

Donít get me wrong. I found it to be a pleasant enjoyable read, a B minus novel if you will.  Its future is fairly thought out and original, albeit narrowband in its choice of setting. The word transhuman is mentioned and itís positive. It's definitely a Better Humans kinda reality and people like Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama have lost and probably decided to die. Itís just that the novel had no emotional weight whatsoever. I felt like its characters were imprisoned by its narrative, not driving it. Also, and this has to do with the fact that not only is writing science fiction hard, but itís become really hard to write about anything more than 10 years out. There are just too many roving Singularity tipping points out there that can wreck your narrative. One of the questions I had is why you didnít have multiple copies of yourself running around in this very liberal libertarian world where everybody smokes crack for leisure? Or why you couldnít have your mind uploaded into another body other than your own? Itís all just bits anyway it seems in this reality.

I also donít share Coryís fascination with theme parks and memorabilia. (See any four entries at his primo blog Boing Boing.) I would have been more interested in how these new techs affect, say, newspapers (if there are any) or even, dare I say it, space ships. I was still kind of unclear as to what happened to the nation state. (So much for those blog arguments about old vs. new Europe). The bookís nice Kurzweil-tinged evolutionary techs just seems to have spawned a fairly happy Slashdot world, where even murder isnít as mean as it used to be. You just find yourself wondering about the sequential process toward this particular Nirvana.

I also didnít buy the premise that Disney World would be all that important 100 years from now. It seems to me that in that kind of world everybody could find cooler things to do in cyberspace, or with assemblers. Or even: with assemblers in cyberspace. Or, being that somebody has finally built a space station: with assemblers in Outer Space. With all that plus full immersion VR who would need amusement rides?

I have to confess that this is a novel thatís more important in terms of how it was distributed, rather than how well it was written. For, and I have a hard time imagining a reader at Better Humans not knowing this, but Cory released the novel for free under the Creative Commons license. Thatís free. (Last time I checked though, you could only read it through a cached version of google. It could be the usual tech hiccups or downtime or perhaps the free lunch is over.)  It certainly makes it easy for me to review.  I thought and still think that was a fairly gutsy move. Cory says the book is selling very well and I have yet to see a copy at a major bookstore. Iím assuming thatís because itís sold out. In point of fact, if you seethe in anger that anyone would receive jail time or prosecution (persecution?) for downloading music and loathe the RIAAís /MPAA thick-headed war against the future of American technology, then go out and get a copy of Coryís book out of spite.  Iím definitely buying the paperback version. I believe in vengeance.

 

(image from Salon)



Speaking of the copyright wars, that what's Cory talks more about in his novella "0wnz0redĒ, also for free (after watching a helpful Ad, perhaps) over at Salon. I actually think itís a much better read than his novel and shows off his strengths much much more, which is really unfair. Because "0wnz0red" was much easier for him to write. It's like demanding another cyberspace novel from William Gibson when he'd really like to give alternative realities or impressionistic horror a respectable go. Sure, we know he can do the former better, but the latter would be more challenging.

Yet if you're looking for Cory to write about science fiction involving corporate valley business ethos, copyright law, and cool future tech well then here's your Neuromancer II.  It definitely reads like one of the better Bruce Sterling short stories. In fact, if you like Charlie Stross and Bruce Sterling, you'll like Cory Doctorow. It's clear that they all swim in the same end of the meme pool and they got that tech jargon down man...

It features a number of dazzling ideas. My favorite derives from a line that Richard Dawkins once mentioned about how future kids who get it will understand that genes should be treated like software, something that you could manipulate. It's definitely cool when the lead character can lose weight, gain muscle and develop an eidetic memory simply by reprogramming himself. Bring on the future if that's what it means. I also liked the idea of solving the AIDs plague by spreading the cure via irresponsible sexual conduct.  It has all kinds of neat twists and commentary thrown in. It's a truly enjoyable read.

 

 




Charisma
By Steven Barnes
TOR Books
2002



As a matter of record, let it be stated that this
reviewer enjoyed the Harry Potter books and the Lord
of the Rings movies very much. This is despite the
belief that their writers live or have lived in what
could only be called very White White White White
White worlds. Tolkien could be forgiven. Afterall,
those were the times. Not only that: any attempt by
him to handle the race matter would turn out like
Kiplingís patronizing romantic view of colonialism
anyway. But J.K. Rowling? Hasnít modern Britain turned
into an island full of Indian and Jamaican immigrants?
Donít tell me Rowling never saw them, like Woody
Allenís missing black and Hispanic New Yorkers for all
those years, with her modern eye. Her perceptions must
have been dimmed by a devilish incantation.

Surely, someone can write a good fantasy novel and
have people of color play a significant role. Turns
out that the ever prolific Steven Barnes has already
written that good book and as you might imagine: Itís
a bit darker than anything that Rowling has ever come
up with, not just in tone, but casting. Or at least I
donít remember private assassinsópartial to using hit
and run techniques on bicycling kidsómurderous drug
dealing bikers and gay body builders with a mean
streak ever taking a ride on Harry Potterís magic
train. Hereís a hint of Charismaís NC-17 tone: an
angry gang of male gay body builders arenít just
content to kick your butt silly. Iíll leave it at
that.

Charismaís premise is actually pretty interesting.
What would happen if you took the genetic structure of
what we could call African American super people (Your
Alis, Robert Johnsons, Oprahs and so forth) and
genetically transferred their traits into young
children from poor backgrounds. And what if it turns
out that the bookís fictional black super achiever,
Alexander Marcus, a black billionaire Rupert Murdoch
with a military background, has a ruthless streak that
the scientists didnít know about? You would get some
very ruthless and intelligent mutant kids (The X-Men
are even mentioned.) who seem to live an ethic that
Machiavelli or Sun Tzu would admire. You could argue
that their murders are all self-defense, but itís
still grisly. The kids are such effective machines
that at the bookís denouementówhere the assassins,
armed with their big guns and their Nam tactics,
slowly unfold their plans to make the genetically
altered kids summer Camp Charisma experience a fatal
oneóyou might find yourself feeling a kind of
precognitive pity for the assassins. Turned out to be
right. Itís not unlike reading the ďThe Wrath of Khan:
The Pre-Teen YearsĒ, for those of you who get Star
Trek references.

The big thrill here is that you get your science
fiction with a varied cast of color. Black folks are
represented at almost every level of society doing
interesting cool things. Thereís the hack reporter
looking for one last great headline, the struggling
business owner mother of one, the ex-jock, the street
kids, even the super achiever. Barnes even manages to
touch upon class differences within the black
community itself. These are insights missing from the
movies these days, a lot of science fiction
television, and even genre books for that matter.

All in all, a very satisfying read. Donít be surprised
to find yourself racing through the final 100 pages
even though you can see whatís coming. It would be
nice to see this on screen, just as affirmation that
black people can be included in Great Fantasy and it
can still be a cool story as well.

 

 I thought the animatrix toon that I saw was very very intense. It had kind of a Ralph Bakshi adult feel to it. It was well written, well crafted. The most unusual thing about it is how it turns around the moral high ground of the series. The bots look a lot like persecuted slaves who were simply trying to defend themselves. I look forward to seeing the rest of the shorts.