Friday, May 2, 2014

Habst and the Disney Saboteurs

I rarely read reviews of things before I experience them. More often I watch or read the movie, TV show, book, or whatever and then I read the reviews to see if I agree with them. I think it’s got something to do with left-handed people doing everything backwards. My point is that this is not going to be one of those spoiler-free reviews that dances around major plot points and only speaks in generalities. If that’s not the kind of review you want to read, pull the handle and bail out. Otherwise, join me after the jump.

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Habst and the Disney Saboteurs is a book by Leonard Kinsey, best known for authoring The Dark Side of Disney, a sort of travel guide to the seedy underbelly of Walt Disney World. Like that first book, Habst and the Disney Saboteurs is not a G-rated work. Mr. Kisney has not done anything G-rated since he was a zygote. However, this is a rather G-rated blog. The strongest language I ever use is a very infrequent “frak”, and that’s not even a real word. So you may be wondering what made me buy this book and review it.

Truth is, I didn’t. Buy the book, that is. A few days ago Leonard messaged me on Twitter and asked if I’d be interested in a review copy. He made this offer even though I spend most of my time on Twitter making fun of things or complaining about them. Interestingly, around the same time Disney was getting ready to stage a media event around the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train attraction, and only the usual slate of sunny social media personalities who would faithfully tweet the company’s desired talking points without applying critical thinking were invited. Unlike the Disney social media team, however, Leonard is not a raging paranoiac, and he gave me a copy of his book without knowing what I would say about it. My review might’ve been ten solid paragraphs of expletives for all he knew.

Habst and the Disney Saboteurs is the story of a directionless stoner named Reginald Habst. He’s a former Walt Disney World custodial employee whose only hobby other than using marijuana is sneaking into the theme parks to take backstage videos. He’s hired by a shadowy group called Sat-Com to film specific attractions and backstage areas at Disney World, but soon after he uploads the videos the attractions he filmed are spectacularly destroyed by acts of sabotage. Eventually the saboteurs are revealed to be none other than the disembodied intelligences of Walt and Roy Disney, whose minds were uploaded to a kind of nuclear-powered server farm after they died, kind of like Arnim Zola in Captain America 2. The sabotage is part of their master plan to not only wrest control of Walt Disney World away from its clueless and miserly corporate stooges, but also to eventually bring about the singularity and allow everyone on Earth to upload their consciousness to a virtual Progress City.

I am not quite sure what to think of this book. The basic concept—that Walt Disney uploaded his mind to a computer when he died, and is continuing his work to create the ultimate Progress City—is an undeniably fascinating sci-fi concept. But I have to say that I don’t much care for the wrapping it comes in. The book’s main character, Reginald Habst, is a stoned slacker whose life revolves around the procurement and consumption of marijuana. In fact, his entire life is devoted to pursuing short-term gratification without regard for his long-term well-being. This is a problem because the villain of the piece is Disney CEO “Bill Ivers” and the company’s clueless corporate masters responsible for the decay of Walt Disney World; a decay caused by their pursuit of short-term gratification without regard for the resort’s long-term well-being. Essentially, Disney’s corporate stooges are Habst writ large. It seems that when Habst is self-centered and short-sighted, he’s a lovable rogue we’re supposed to identify with, but when corporate Disney behaves in the same way, they’re pure evil and we’re supposed to hate them. But maybe I’m being unfair. After all, the book reminds us that corporate Disney’s pursuit of short-term profits actually got a Monorail pilot killed back in 2009. Habst’s pursuit of his next buzz doesn’t kill anyone, does it? Well, no. But it should.

You see, during Habst’s expedition to film the inner workings of the Carousel of Progress for his mysterious employer so he can earn Virtcoins to buy more pot, the arm of his girlfriend Monika gets caught in the machinery and she’s nearly crushed to death. She’s saved by an anonymous benefactor (later revealed to be Walt Disney in a remote-controlled Animatronic body) and gets off with “merely” a crushed hand. But in a world where super-advanced Animatronics controlled by the disembodied intelligence of Walt Disney do not appear at fortuitous moments (i.e. the world we live in) Monika would be dead, and Habst’s pursuit of short-term pharmaceutical gratification would have killed as many people as corporate Disney’s pursuit of short-term financial gratification.

Now, if this were a turning point for Habst’s character, a catalyst that forced him to take stock of where his life was heading and decide to become a better person, then it might work. But it isn’t and it doesn’t. Habst remains the same self-centered, shortsighted slacker he always was. But because his videos help Walt and Roy carry out their plan, they help him to escape the consequences of his actions and become a wealthy vice-president of a freshly-overhauled Disney World. It reminds me more than a little of James T. Kirk’s character arc in 2009’s Star Trek, where he spends the entire movie behaving like an arrogant, reckless frat boy only to be rewarded for his behavior by getting promoted from Cadet to Captain and we’re supposed to believe that he’s gone through some kind of maturation when he clearly hasn’t.

Of course, Habst is not the only character in the book. For starters, there’s also his underage girlfriend, Monika. I’ll be blunt: Monika is not a real person. She’s a blow-up doll. To call her character paper-thin would be misrepresenting the thickness of paper. Her big character arc is deciding she wants to play Snow White at Disney World instead of doing infinitely better-paying magazine photoshoots. Monika’s mother, with whom she and Habst live in an Orlando-area McMansion, is basically a more shrill, wrinkled, saggy, and depraved version of her daughter. However, the characters of Charlie Walker and his wife Megan, which were introduced in Nick Pobursky’s Hollow World, are likable and have some real depth.

I’ll freely admit that maybe I don’t understand what Mr. Kinsey is doing here. Sure, I find Habst and Monika to be fairly repulsive people. But are they supposed to be? Or is Habst supposed to be a lovable loser that the audience roots for, with Monika playing the Megan-Fox-in-Transformers role of eye candy for the hero to hook up with after he saves the day? And does Habst’s happy ending, a life of unlimited money and drugs, the affections of a 17-year-old nymphomaniac, and the dream job of every old-school Disney World geek, represent the author’s ideal fantasy life? I honestly don’t know.

But what compounds my problem with Habst and his associates is that there’s no good reason for them to even be in the story. Consider: what does Sat-Com need Habst for? To take backstage videos so Walt and Roy can figure out how to most efficiently sabotage everyone’s most loathed attractions, right? But why can’t they do it themselves? After all, Animatronic Walt is first seen backstage at the Carousel of Progress. And later Walt and Roy effortlessly sneak into EPCOT to sabotage various things there. If they could do all that, why couldn’t they also get their own video footage? Or hack into Disney’s archives and get the blueprints for the things they want to sabotage? My intuition tells me that Leonard Kinsey created the character of Habst first, and then came up with a story to tell about him.

By far, the most interesting part of the book for me is the sci-fi story: that Walt and Roy Disney survived death by having their consciousnesses uploaded into a giant nuclear-powered computer, and have been working ever since to make it possible for everyone in the world to upload their minds to a virtual Progress City. In the meantime, they’re even working to resurrect the disembodied intelligences of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Carl Sagan. For the majority of the story this kind of remains in the background. Sure, it’s hinted that maybe Walt isn’t as dead as everyone thought when someone who looks very much like him saves Monika at the Carousel of Progress. And Habst and Charlie realize that the mysterious group called Sat-Com has some kind of bigger plan involving the sabotage of theme park attractions, but exactly what that plan is, and the true identity of Sat-Com, isn’t revealed until the book’s climax.

And that’s the frustrating thing, at least from my perspective. Habst and the Disney Saboteurs is the story of how Reginald Habst and the people around him get caught up in Walt and Roy Disney’s plan, a plan that was in motion well before the main plot begins. But that’s really not the story I want to read.  I don’t care about seeing Habst fail upward, I really want the whole story of Walt’s return and the unfolding of his post-resurrection plan from start to finish. I suppose I understand why that’s not the book Leonard Kinsey wanted to write, and probably why it’s not the book that most people would want to read. My tastes are rather far outside the mainstream.

I will say that Walt’s grand plan to create a virtual Progress City and make it possible for everyone to upload their minds to it is a thought-provoking idea. It also rings true for Walt, because he belonged to that generation that believed technology could solve any problem. He was born before the Wright Brothers built their first airplane, and when he died man was getting ready to walk on the moon. Diseases like polio and smallpox were seemingly conquered in his lifetime. From his vantage point in 1966, shooting the E.P.C.O.T. project film shortly before he died, it must have seemed that technology could easily conquer the rest of humanity’s longstanding problems within the next fifty years. But if we’ve learned anything in the last five decades, it’s that our worst problems do not have technological solutions. No amount of technology can make people volunteer to stop being greedy, selfish, violent, or fanatical.

During the last couple of weeks, a major news story has been the racism of L.A. Clippers owner and billionaire slumlord Donald Sterling. By all accounts Sterling is a horrible man with absolutely no redeeming qualities who’s used his money and influence to largely escape any meaningful consequences for a lifetime of racist scumbaggery. But he’s also in his 80s, which means that at some point in the not-too-distant future he’s going to die like everyone else. But what if the singularity was a real thing? Sterling is a billionaire, you know he’d be able to buy his way in. Then he’d be able to inflict himself on society for all eternity! As bad as things are now, at least the human lifespan puts a limit on how much damage one person can do. Do we really want to take that away? But wait, maybe there’d be some kind of system in place to make sure stuff like that didn’t happen, that only deserving people got into the virtual afterlife. So who would make that determination? The disembodied mind of Walt Disney? Wouldn’t that make him God? Walt Disney once thought that labor unions were a Communist plot to take over America, do we really want to live in a world where he’s God?

My point is that the implications of what Walt Disney is trying to do in this book are absolutely staggering. But they’re never addressed. Instead we get a subplot about Habst being constipated. It kind of reminds me of how Star Trek Into Darkness completely glosses over the discovery of a cure for death.

So now we’ve come to that part of the review where I’m supposed to tell you whether or not you should buy this book, and maybe sum up my opinions with a breezy little blurb. But I’m not going to do that. For one thing, you’re old enough to make up your own mind without some random Internet person telling you what to do. Also, I’m no good at blurb-writing. So, I’ll just say that Habst and the Disney Saboteurs is available at Amazon both in paperback and Kindle editions, and also on the iBooks store. Get it if you want it, and thanks again to Leonard Kinsey for hooking me up with a review copy.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read the book and write this awesome, in-depth review! I'm sure we could sit for hours and debate the finer points of the book (and that would be a helluva a lot of fun), but really, I was just excited to get your contrarian take on it, and you didn't disappoint!

    But for my next book I'm adding you to my beta readers list so I can get these sorts of notes BEFORE I release it ;)

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  2. I just finished the book and agree. It was enjoyable, but I have my gripes.

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