In an economically struggling America, two good friends, Perry and Lester, invent and sell novelty items made of junk. This places them in the vanguard of the New Work movement, and they ride that wave until it busts in obvious parallel to the bursting of the dot-com bubble. They shake themselves off, and build an ever-changing amusement ride in south Florida. It seems to be catching on, which in turn, catches the attention of a nervous Disney executive concerned about declining attendance at the Disney World attraction he oversees in Orlando.
And that’s pretty much the plot. It’s the story of Perry and Lester, two guys with lots of imagination but not much business sense. They are joined by Suzanne Church, a journalist turned blogger who reports on what they are doing, and by a few other supporting cast members.
Mainly this is a book of social commentary. It highlights contrasts between protecting vested interests and investment in new ideas, open and proprietary technology, and big corporations and small entrepreneurs. It did all of this fairly well, I thought, and the future it paints is somewhat depressing but believable.
The characters are also believable, for the most part. I have only read one other Doctorow novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and the characters in this one are a definite improvement. They aren’t admirable or even especially likeable, but they have understandable motivations and personalities. Even the two characters serving in the role of villains are more pitiable than evil.
The prose is serviceable and the story flows logically. My biggest gripe about the storytelling was the inclusion of a far too descriptive sex scene, which felt like it was cut and pasted out of some steamy erotic romance novel. It wasn’t required, and it didn’t fit. Oh, and it talks about people smoking clove cigarettes, which are no longer legal in the U.S. and I doubt they will be again in the near future. You can still buy small, clove cigars, but they’re not as good. (Yeah, I used to smoke the things.)
Anyway, as a near future tale about two average geeky guys, this isn’t bad. It’s not silly. It doesn’t rant. The characters aren’t cardboard stereotypes, and it brings up some interesting ideas. I can recommend it for readers interested in seeing one possible future that believable extensions of current technology and economic trends make possible.
- Involuntary death has been vanquished. If you’re ill, injured, or simply sick of yourself the way you are, your consciousness can be uploaded from your last backup into a new, cloned, body, which can be customized with a seemingly large array of modifications.
- Money no longer exists. In its place is a more accurate measurement of a person’s true worth — whuffie, which somehow quantifies reputation, popularity, appreciation, sympathy, admiration… the feelings people hold toward others for what they have done.
- Scarcity is a thing of the past. There are enough resources for all to live, even those without much whuffie, although they won’t be welcomed in as many places (like hotels and restaurants).
- The idea of personal property has been replaced. In this future, you use what you need, provided your whuffie proves you’re entitled to.
- Ad hoc groups run or manage whatever needs a human touch, which earns them whuffie, especially if they do it well. The activities of government, companies, and institutions of all kinds are now overseen by ad hocs, which can be replaced by others, if people believe they will do a better job.
It’s an interesting vision of the future, and the story is set in and especially wonderful part of this seeming utopia, Disney World — specifically on two of the attractions in the Liberty Square section of the Magic Kingdom — The Hall of Presidents and The Haunted Mansion. (It helps to understand the setting if you are more than casually acquainted with Disney World.)
The various portions of the parks are overseen by ad hocs, and two are in competition over control of Liberty Square. Each has a different vision for the attractions. One wants to keep them traditional and one wants to provide a more intimate experience by tapping directly into the interfaces all people have in their brains.
This provides the imaginative setting for a serviceable tale of competition between two groups with different visions. The one thing that kept me from enjoying the book much is that everyone in it is a jerk. They aren’t even especially funny or interesting jerks. The main character, Julius, is a pathetic individual who proves himself ethically and intellectually weak after he is traumatized by his murder. (He recovers in a new body.) His best friend seems to be an okay guy, until we find out… well, that would be a spoiler. Let’s just say that he’s not as good a friend as he first appears. And the others, well, I doubt that I’d give them much whuffie.
The less than admirable characters may be intentional. Doctorow may be presenting the hypothesis that even in a utopian environment, people will be no better than they must be. I’m not sure I agree, but I’m not about to rant about it. My issue with the novel is that I found nothing about the characters to make me care about what happened to them. Their successes or failures had equal emotional impact. I was mildly curious, but I did not really care how the story ended.
I will say that this is worth reading for the setting and the ideas it presents. If, however, you require characters with some emotional appeal, this probably is not for you.