I never planned on reading Cory Doctorow's Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom . I'd read a short story of his called, irritatingly enough, "0wnz0red", and while it was a fine short story, it was way too heavy on the Wired/Slashdot brand of technogeek futurism for me. So I figured any book he'd write would be the same, and mentally planned on ignoring it.

But then an interesting thing happened: Doctorow released the novel in electronic form for free. Well, now, if it's free, I might as well take a look, eh? I mean, why not?

So I did. I grabbed the HTML file and started reading. Two pages in, I knew I'd buy the book, because I wanted to finish reading it and have never liked reading books on screen. (I tried reading Project Gutenberg's The Three Musketeers once, and was completely unable to focus my attention for long enough.) Funny thing, though, was that I just kept reading and reading, and I eventually finished the entire book electronically -- Doctorow's writing is pacey enough that I couldn't metaphorically put the book down.

Of course, now that I've read the book electronically, there's technically no reason for me to buy the printed edition; but I will, anyway. For one thing, this is the sort of action I want to support. Freely distributing an open-format novel in an age when media companies are trying to destroy the general-purpose computer in the name of copy protection is the sort of act that deserves reward. But more than that, I'll buy it because I like having books that I've read -- especially good ones.

And this is a good book. It nicely straddles the line between being a near-future extrapolation book and being a far-future posthumanist novel. The characters in the book are quite posthuman -- death just means restore from backup; most material goods are free; network interfaces and computers are fully integrated into the brain -- but they're recognizably still people. People who live in a very different world, people who have all sorts of different priorities than we do, but still people. I can believe in this future, and I can believe in these characters. And I can sympathize with them, something that's more difficult to do in something like Greg Egan's Diaspora, where the posthuman characters are too alien to be sympathetic.

If I were to complain, I'd say that the future extrapolated here is a bit too generic and obviously a future-of-today (in the same way that Golden Age stories are obviously a future-of-then), with its anarchistic reputation-based society, its pervasive networks, its nano-magic tech; and I might say that Doctorow's outlook is still a bit too technogeeky. But the world is interesting enough (particularly the corner of it that we see: Disney World), and the technogeeky outlook rarely gets obtrusive, so these aren't major flaws.

But hey, you don't need to take my word for it -- go read it yourself.


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