down and out

Cory Doctorow made a pretty big splash with this book (well, at least in some of the circles I travel in), because he released the content for free on his website,, at the same time the bound version (the “dead tree” version, as the cool kids say) came out. It also probably didn’t hurt that he works for the EFF and is a frequent contributor to Boing Boing, a popular blog.

There was a lot of hype about this book that really didn’t have anything to do with the subject matter or the writing, is what I guess I’m trying to say. And because of that hype, I sort of shied away from reading it — thinking that it would probably be underwhelming, relative to the hype. Doctorow has a second novel out now, _Eastern Standard Tribe_, and it’s getting some of the same hype, because he’s still using the “free online or buy the book” model — but it’s also getting good reviews because of the content. So, when I was in $BIG_CHAIN_BOOKSTORE recently, and saw _Down and Out_ in a trade paperback version, I said, “what the hell”, and grabbed a copy. I figured that even if the book wasn’t that great, supporting the business model was a good thing (because I like the idea of lots of freely available web content).

That’s a long-winded way of saying that finding out that the book was really quite good was a bit of a happy surprise. The story Doctorow weaves is of the “Bitchun society” — what Western capitalism turns into when scarcity — energy scarcity, material scarcity, even death — is eliminated. The Bitchun society is in many ways on the other side of Vinge’s Singularity from our current world — it’s a bit hard to imagine the motivations of characters when death is about as damaging as pushing the “reset” button while playing a video game — but Doctorow makes the story work, mainly because he’s just applying another coat of paint to a classic story of betrayal, confusion, and loss.

The story is of Jules, who works at Disney World as part of the “ad-hoc” that runs the Hall of Presidents. An “ad-hoc” is a, well, ad-hoc autonomous collective — a group of people, operating by consensus. When Jules’s assassination paves the way for a new ad-hoc to seize control of the running of the Hall of Presidents, he becomes obsessed with convincing people that the leader of the upstart ad-hoc is up to no good. His obsession leads him further and further afield, until finally… Well, no giving up plot points, but I will say that this is one of those books where the “can’t wait to turn the page” factor ratchets up and further up the closer you get to the end.

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