My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Provide free fuel -- check
Abolish money -- check
Conquer death -- check
What have you got? One Bitchun society!
Doctorow's novel takes place in a not too distant future where all the above and more have been achieved. Much of what exists is the predictive stuff you read about in popular magazines today: our computers are embedded within our bodies, we make phone calls through our cochlea, etc. That conquering death thing could still be someways off. Happy participants in the Bitchun society do frequent back-ups of themselves, in case death comes from misadventure. You don't want to lose too much time when downloaded into your freshly cloned body. Others just enjoy an occasional change, or don't want to put up with a bout of the flu. As a result, everyone has an apparent age of their own choosing and their actual physical age which could now be a century or more older than they look. Bitchun!
Jules, our hero, has lived several lifetimes, composed well-received symphonies, and earned three Ph.D's. But he really finds himself on a visit to Disney World, Orlando. Here a finds a new lover among the employees passionately devoted to the un-revamped attractions around LIberty Square and the Haunted Mansion. Alas, even in this not particularly brave new world, hell still proves to be other people. The conniving Debra, fresh from a newly conceived Disney Beijing, has plans to bring things up to date around Liberty Square. Hiss. Boo.
This all sounds hopelessly lightweight for a novel, but Doctorow tells a good story and creates a convincing Bitchun society with hints of a darker side. Take away death and over-population becomes a problem. Jules previously lived in underground overflow facilities in Toronto. But since you spend most of your time in a virtual world, perhaps living a mile underground is no real burden. Off planet emigration is encouraged. Although he does not plan to do so himself, Jules knows more and more people who a "dead heading," having their back ups stored in canopic jars for a few years, decades, or even centuries. (You can also dead head for airplane flights, the best idea in the book.) If you have really had enough of life after a century or so, free lethal injections are available at the corner drugstore. But of course everything is free.
Is Disney World the perfect emblem of the Bitchun society? Doctorow plays lightly with his ideas with a plot that poses problems for his characters, some of them over a century old, that sound like the high-tech version of the problems kids with a summer job at a theme park might run into.
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