SF Thought Experiments: Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow & How to Live Safely in a SF Universe by Charles Yu: Review

Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow
Title: Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom
Author: Cory Doctorow
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: December 2003
Length: 208 pages
Series: Stand Alone
Audio or Book: Book
Reason for Discovery: Sword & Laser Book Club

From GoodReads:

Jules is a young man barely a century old. He's lived long enough to see the cure for death and the end of scarcity, to learn ten languages and compose three symphonies...and to realize his boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World. Disney World! The greatest artistic achievement of the long-ago twentieth century. Now in the keeping of a network of "ad-hocs" who keep the classic attractions running as they always have, enhanced with only the smallest high-tech touches. Now, though, the "ad hocs" are under attack. A new group has taken over the Hall of the Presidents, and is replacing its venerable audioanimatronics with new, immersive direct-to-brain interfaces that give guests the illusion of being Washington, Lincoln, and all the others. For Jules, this is an attack on the artistic purity of Disney World itself. Worse: it appears this new group has had Jules killed. This upsets him. (It's only his fourth death and revival, after all.) Now it's war....

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
Title: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Author: Charles Yu
Publisher: Pantheon
Publication Date: September 2010
Length: 233 pages
Series: Stand Alone
Audio or Book: Book
Reason for Discovery: Sword & Laser Book Club

From GoodReads:

Minor Universe 31 is a vast story-space on the outskirts of fiction, where paradox fluctuates like the stock market, lonely sexbots beckon failed protagonists, and time travel is serious business. Every day, people get into time machines and try to do the one thing they should never do: change the past. That’s where Charles Yu, time travel technician—part counselor, part gadget repair man—steps in. He helps save people from themselves. Literally. When he’s not taking client calls or consoling his boss, Phil, who could really use an upgrade, Yu visits his mother (stuck in a one-hour cycle of time, she makes dinner over and over and over) and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. Accompanied by TAMMY, an operating system with low self-esteem, and Ed, a nonexistent but ontologically valid dog, Yu sets out, and back, and beyond, in order to find the one day where he and his father can meet in memory. He learns that the key may be found in a book he got from his future self. It’s called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and he’s the author. And somewhere inside it is the information that could help him—in fact it may even save his life. 

I decided to combine my reviews for these two books, because they are both super short and both feel like SF thought experiments more than anything else. They both have plots and action; however, I was left thinking more about the issues these two books raised than the events themselves.

Let's talk about Down & Out first. Before I get into the SF aspects of this book, we need to address the Disney World component. I really enjoy going to Walt Disney World, and I had an annual pass for years. Doctorow is a big Disney fan (his Twitter feed is filled with posts about DRM and Disney), and it shows in this book. When I read Doctorow's book, I knew the exact locations that he was describing. His descriptions were spot on. I really felt like I was in the book, because I was so familiar with the landmarks that he was describing. If you love going to Walt Disney World, you want to give this book a read just for the descriptions. My husband read this book too, and his first comment was about how he could see all of the places Doctorow was describing in his mind.

Down & Out tells the story of Jules who is working for a group at Walt Disney World that focuses on maintaining The Haunted Mansion. In the future, specialized groups of people who love Walt Disney World take care of particular rides (the book goes into more detail, I just wanted to give a brief description). Anyway, Jules and his group want The Haunted Mansion to remain the same as it is now in our 2014 present. There is another group that wants to change The Haunted Mansion and update it with all this cool, new technology. The idea of nostalgia versus new technology is not an old one, but I thought using the Magic Kingdom for the discussion was rather clever, because it is a place where nostalgia and new technology butt heads all of the time.

Alright, let's move on to How to Live Safely. How to Live Safely is about a guy who repairs time machines. People keep trying to use time machines to change the past instead of to view the past. When people try to change the past, their time machines malfunction and Charles has to help them. As you can probably guess, How to Live Safely is all about how to live in the present when you can visit different time periods. How do you live your life in the present when you really do have "all the time in the world"?

Unlike Down & Out, which follows a more traditional storytelling path, How to Live Safely experiments with the storytelling narrative. The protagonist's name is the author's name (Charles Yu), and at the end of the book chapters, there are excerpts from the time travel manual. These little quirks make the book feel unique and unsettling at times. I have to admit that I have trouble reading more "experimental-type" books. I am old and settled in my ways, I guess. Anyway, How to Live Safely does ask some interesting questions about living life. I just wish that the book felt a bit more lively. I don't need a ton of action in my books, but Charles spend most of his time sitting in his tiny time machine. The book felt a bit boring at times, despite the interesting thought puzzles.

Overall, I enjoyed both of these books alright. I doubt that I will ever re-read them, but they posed certain questions that I find myself still contemplating at times.

I give these two books a 3 out of 5.

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