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03-10-13: Archive Review: Cory Doctorow's 'Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom'

Futures of Days Passed

Editor's Note: Cory Doctorow has talked about both a prequel and sequel to this book as a potential title in the future. Our future includes, then, either the past of Doctorow's past future or the future of Doctow's past future. Either wasyk out future is a better place for it. We now return this past review of Doctorow's past title about our future to our present, which, by the time you read this, will be the past.

Beneath the shiny surface of even the glossiest, most vapid entertainment, there's a huge complex machine that chugs all day and all night just to eke a few laughs out of the audience. The most difficult aspect of any entertainment endeavor is to make what is in reality very complex look very simple. 'Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom' by Cory Doctorow conceals some very complicated thoughts beneath a glossy surface. It's Left Coast, Unix-based cyberpunk, with an Open Source origin. Everybody is logged in, all the time.

Jules is only a century old, but he lives in the post-scarcity, post-death Bitchun Society. He's died four times, but this last death has really cheesed him off. He'd settled into Disney World, tending to the venerable animatronics of the Hall of Presidents and the Haunted Mansion. His death has given a rival faction of ad-hocs the opportunity to revamp the Hall with immersive direct-to-brain 'flash-bakes' that give the guests the illusion of being Washington, Lincoln and others. By the time he's resurrected from a backup, the project is a fait accompli. Jules does not take this kindly, and he doesn't react wisely. Soon, he's gone from the pinnacle of Bitchun Society to the state described in the title of the book.

Doctorow's prose is limpid and very easy to read. 'Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom' goes down a treat, with more than a few laughs and chuckles as readers race through Doctorow's future. This is actually something of a problem as the book begins. When your subject is a character who is all surface in a future that's all surface, then it's a bit hard for readers to connect with the narrator on a visceral level. But there's a method to Doctorow's mildness. As Jules becomes disenfranchised from his own society, he becomes much more accessible to readers in this world. As this plan reveals itself — and Jules plans unravel — the reader can't help but become more engaged.

But operating beneath this glossy, enjoyable surface is a very complicated world filled with intelligently conceived advances and retreats. From the contents of a 208 page book, one could excavate more than a few doctoral theses on various aspects of Doctorow's Bitchun Society. For current computer geeks, Doctorow sprinkles his prose with just the right number of Unix-derived terms. For sociologists, Doctorow has constructed a fascinating society where the currency is the respect you receive from those who know you. For futurists, Doctorow has offered up a gleaming utopian vision utterly unlike those of other cyberpunk authors. For anybody who has ever had to backup or restore their computer's files, he offers heaven itself. For all the simplicity and limpidity of the narrative, there's a very complex stew of ideas bubbling just underneath Doctorow's sunny narrative.

But not everything is fun and games in Doctorow's world. Jules finds this out as he tries to disconnect, and finds himself increasingly isolated and outcast. Readers will feel a bit of the frustration that the character feels, and may find themselves as disenchanted with the narrative as Jules is with the Bitchun Society. Sometimes less is more, but in the case of this novel, less is sometimes less. We get a good bead on Jules, but other characters remain distant to Jules and to the reader. Vapid is as vapid does.

That would be more of a problem if this were a gritty novel of intensely defined humans trying to eke out an existence in an increasing inhuman world. But 'Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom' is more a novel of ideas. It shares more in common with the work of Stanislaw Lem than with William Gibson. Cheap laughs and deep thoughts jostle one another, having a swell time as the reader enjoys the painful revelations that await Jules.

'Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom' is not the usual bit of funny science fiction fluff. Doctorow covers a lot of conceptual ground in a small space, and he makes something that's rather complex look ridiculously easy. But don't try this at home kids. You may injure your brain. If you're not backed up, then you might not be able to recover. You may think you're bitchin' — but we're not Bitchun yet, not by a long shot.

03-07-13: My Life in the Bush of Books

A Happy Trifecta; Monte Reel 'Between Man and Beast,' Seth Patrick, 'Reviver' and Dan Simmons, 'The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz'

When the lights go out, when the power is gone, when our digital civilization is but dust, and efforts like the one you are reading now are but mere memories, the books will survive. I can scare up forty-five year-old mass-market paperbacks, probably intended to last about a month, maybe a year. The volume in question is Willy Ley's 'On Earth And In The Sky,' which in retrospect, proved to be an excellent gateway drug to all the works you'll find in today's column.

'On Earth And In The Sky' is rocket-scientist Willy Ley's version of Charles Fort's 'Book of The Damned,' which I bought next. And from there, it was Arthur C. Clarke, in a long chain leading to today's selections. If this column goes out late, it is because the power was out, and I found that all I could do was to read. As far as I'm concerned, the end cannot come soon enough, and unlike Burgess Meredith in the famous Twilight Zone episode, I'm (a) nearsighted, and don't require glasses to read, and (b) stocked with six pairs of magnifying reading glasses just so I never have to look too far.

I must admit that I have been waiting patiently for Monte Reel's 'Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debate, and the African Adventure That Took the Victorian World by Storm' (Doubleday / Random House ; March 12, 2013 ; $26.95). In general, as with the following two books, I tend to run too early. Here's a book I saw before the end of last year and waited patiently to arrive, so you could read this and go out and buy it immediately.

At the center of 'Between Man and Beast' is Paul du Chaillu, an ambitious young man in the Victorian era who decided that he could transform himself into a scientist by journeying deep into the unexplored territory of Africa, and in so doing brought back lurid stories for a hopped up press. It was a glorious return, and the capper were his tales of what had heretofore been seen as a mythical beast — the gorilla. You can imagine the headlines; "HALF-MAN, HALF-BEAST, ALL MONSTER!" At the same time, Charles Darwin was finishing 'The Origin of the Species,' and the image of the gorilla, the man-like monster, was quickly woven into the cultural controversy and conversation.

The power of a book like 'Between Man and Beast' comes from Reel's use of storytelling to re-create the way those in the past discovered and experienced what we take for granted. Reel has a huge cast to wrangle and a very mysterious figure at the center of everything, and he does a superb job using du Chaillu as a through-line. As du Chaillu explores both terra incognita and the highest strata of Victorian society, the reader is able to explore du Chaillu's world, beautifully created by Reel. Everything that was a revelation then still seems to be in this day. More than 150 years have passed, but Monte Reel proves that there is still much we can discover in our own history. We have yet to define just what it means to be a scientist, a failure, a success — to be human.

Death and what follows are the ultimate unknowns, and to date, none who have ventured there have returned. But that hasn't stopped us from speculating not only what lies beyond, but also what we'll do when those first hardy explorers manage to make the journey back. Seth Patrick, in 'Reviver,' (Thomas Dunne Books ; June 18, 2013 ; $24 / Tor UK ; June 20, 2013 £11) posits that there are those among us who can wake the dead, which proves very useful when one is solving a murder. Twelve years after the revelation of the revivers, Jonah Miller is getting burnt out. Too many talking dead bodies will do that to you. When his latest case includes an unusual twist, he's told to ignore it. Of course, this proves to be impossible.

Along the way, Patrick crafts a complicated, twisty plot with some superb set pieces and lots of attention-grabbing dead herrings. What sets this book apart from many books that involve the dead rising and the afterlife is that Patrick has taken a supernatural premise and used the toolkits of both the mystery writer and the science fiction writer to extrapolate details and outcomes that lead to some nicely-shaded characters and a plot that offers a great mix of the sensible and the unpredictable. Combining the three genres in this manner lends authenticity to the supernatural, tension to the mystery and texture to the science-fictional. 'Reviver' gets the balance right and as a result, is able to keep the reader off-balance in the best possible manner.

Patrick does a superb job of creating the gritty, intense world of the revivers, and then upping the ante. The key here is Patrick's ability to immerse us in Jonah's world. His prose has the right kind of low-key authority and his characters are gently damaged — at least to begin with. His attention to details of both character and place enable him to create a very realistic world, which he then carefully unravels as Jonah and the revivers discover that there is more to life after death than human souls. Here's a novel that manages to deftly extend hard-boiled forensic mystery into the next life. The plot and the implications of the novel are both going to keep readers up well into the night.

It's quite likely that both the above books would we shelved somewhere in the library at the heart of Dan Simmons' new novella, 'The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz' (Subterranean Press ; June 30, 2013 ; $35). Among the many paperbacks I have of the Willy-Ley vintage, I'm certain I could scare up more than a few from the Dying Earth series by Jack Vance. Vance's vision of a distant future where Arthur C. Clarke's third law ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.") has come to pass is primal stuff, and it informs much of today's science fiction. In 'The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz,' the sublime Dan Simmons decides to have as much fun as he can with a novella set in Vance's universe. The result is the sort of book one hopes will be in the stacks of readers some fifty years hence, and yes, the Subterranean Press hardcover, with a great cover and interior illustrations by Tom Kidd, will last that long.

Shue the diabolist knows that the moment of death is at hand, and he's intent on finding the Ultimate Library. Simmons is more than up to the task of crafting a quest in the universe of Vance's Dying Earth. All the up-front weird and fun, all the creatures and daemons and monsters, all the con men and thieves that one could hope to find are there. Where Simmons really shines is the prose, which captures the light and detailed essence of Vance's world in Simmons' own style. This is a book written with fun at heart, and intended to provide maximum fun for the reader. Simmons, like Vance, does so by playing it smart, plating it straight and playing it really, really weird. It is the perfect addition to the Ultimate Library — yours.

03-04-13: Robert McCammon Promises 'I Travel By Night'

Have Fangs, Will Travel

Trevor Lawson waits in a hotel in New Orleans for his client; it's July 15th, 1886. David Kingsley's daughter, Eva has been kidnapped, and the note required delivery of the ransom by Lawson. It's a set-up, of course. Kingsley and his daughter are pawns caught in the fray between Lawson and his enemies. There's little hope for anyone in the story. Readers, however, are a different story. In 'I Travel By Night' Robert McCammon brings on the atmosphere, the tension, the imagination and the fun as he introduces what most readers will hope by the end of the book is only the beginning of a series.

In the 1980's, McCammon turned a lot of heads with a string of novels that, in many ways, perfectly refined the best elements of American horror fiction. His vampire novel, 'They Thirst' unleashed vampires in Los Angeles; his werewolf novel, 'The Wolf's Hour,' pitted an allied spy who was a werewolf against the Nazis. To these and other novels, he brought a rich, atmospheric imagination, vivid characters and an expertly paced plot. McCammon's novels were unabashedly commercial, generally available first as mass-market paperbacks and one hundred percent fun. He took his work seriously enough to make it real, and the resulting books were the very essence of the eighties horror ripping yarn.

That sensibility is all over his latest book from Subterranean Press 'I Travel By Night.' In a tight, smartly-written novella, readers get the Trevor Lawson's back story, his quest, the limits of his abilities and lots of glimpses into the larger world that McCammon is building. Lawson is a vampire for hire, a night-haunting gunslinger who solves the sort of problems that most folks don't survive — many of which are the result of his decision to try to avert the fate that awaits him. McCammonn does a great job of crafting a character we love who is flawed as hell.

McCammon's world-building superb. The Dark Society, that is, the vampire empire that is hidden within our world, has a great history that is shrouded in just the right amount of mystery. In any vampire novel, the real test is how the author evokes his creatures of the night. McCammon did outstanding job in 'They Thirst,' and he's in top form here. The layers of plot integrate seamlessly with the levels of monstrosity on display, and let McCammon have one hell of a good time with his villains. He does just as well with the victims and in particular his hero, who has many shades of grey, properly woven in evocative prose. Readers can't help but like Trevor Lawson,, and his struggle to stay human has resonances beyond the printed page. It's well-crafted character work and a richly-conceived historical setting.

For all the literary skills that McCammon brings to the novella, the most important is his ability to put them all together with a sense of fun. Yes, he takes his characters and his world seriously, but there's a devil-may-care attitude at work here as well. 'I Travel By Night' knows precisely what it is and it hits that target so easily that readers might not notice all the perfectly-aligned pieces of the puzzle. 'I Travel by Night' is bound to make you smile — and wish that you had fangs to smile with.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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