Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town
by Cory Doctorow
Published by Tor
320 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Andi Shechter
Cory Doctorow's latest is a weird book. Trust me. I've been reading science fiction and fantasy for 30 years. I've read Philip Dick and William Gibson. I've met talking dragons, androids, androgynous people and intelligent dolphins. But holy cow, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is serious weird. And I mean that in a totally good way. I don't know if it's science fiction, magical realism. You won't either. It doesn't matter, whatever you want to call it, the book is entrancing.
Given the broad range of imaginative science fiction, you're thinking: How weird it can be, right? Alan's mother is a washing machine. His father is a mountain, and one of his brothers is an island (and for those keeping score, points off to my partner who, when I explained this to him commented, "I thought no man was an island." Ahem.). Three of Alan's other brothers are a trio of nesting dolls, and one was a hateful hellish murderous evil monster who's dead but who has a tendency to come back.
Interspersed between the story of Alan, who grew up as the oldest of several sons in a family that cannot be explained, dealt with or described to anyone out in the world. Often, Alan, who now lives in Toronto is as ordinary/normal as anyone: a weird but interesting, wealthy guy. He knows he's not typical or normal so goes out of his way to try to pass, to befriend people, seem non-threatening. He introduces himself to his neighbors and makes sure he's not too loud. He works with a street punk on free networking. And things are pretty normal there too, except that one of his neighbors has wings -- leathery not feathery -- that grow down to her ankles if they're not cut back.
I had to read Someone Comes to Town slowly. I kept putting it down and picking it back up, and I'm not completely sure why. It's wonderful, no question about it. But it's hard to take from time to time, whether because of the calisthenics necessary for all that imagination stretching or because Cory Doctorow's portrayal of evil is so truly frightening; I did not want to watch some things happen.
Don't feel you need to read it my way. The author is not into lengthy horror, and the scenes that I was worried about passed quickly. Meanwhile, there was a story of Alan and Kurt trolling Toronto in search of the means to network people for free, one of several threads in the book that is a story all to itself. While this part of the book is somewhat confusing, Doctorow's explanations aren't muddy and when Alan and Kurt meet with the telephone company in some scenes, it was sort of fun... and when was the last time you heard "telephone company" and "fun" in the same sentence?
I also have to sing praises to the author for a lovely little aside he wrote about the Dewey Decimal System. In only a few sentences, he manages to analyze how modern culture has grown and changed. It's a tribute, a little hymn of praise to open stack libraries.
One charming, confusing and telling bit throughout this book is that Alan and his siblings constantly change names. He's "A," and his brothers, B through G, change, sometimes in the same conversation, sometimes in the same paragraph. It's an odd quirk. At first it seemed like a mistake, but then it became clear that this confusion was included for a reason. Even among friends and acquaintances -- and brothers -- Alan is Andy, Arthur, Abel. The nesting doll trio changes all the time and it gave me pause to wonder if people even knew what they were doing when they said "Arvin" instead of "Alan." Sometimes, apparently, they do and even that's an intriguing puzzle.
All of this contributes to making Someone Comes to Town incredibly difficult to summarize. There are several stories in this book and none of them can be described well nor should any of them be skipped. Are Alan and his brothers monsters that need to be destroyed? At least one person thinks so and is intent on harming them. Is it important to give street kids access to computers or cel phones which provide free speech? Weigh in on that one, it comes up in conversation. Can you believe a man's mother is a washing machine? Um, well in context...
When your parents aren't normal, and your crib and other needs are provided by golems (yes, those too) then everyday life is baffling. In a scene where Alan heads back home and stops at the library to find a copy of On the Road for his friend Mimi (road novels having come up in conversation) he freaks out when a clerk tries to take his old ratty library card and replace it with the bar coded standard now used. When Mimi gets him calmed down, Alan says "It was my first piece of identification," he explains that "It made me a person who could get a book out of the library." But what it really came down to for Alan was the first part of the sentence, they realize. Mimi says "You said it made you a person..." "That's right," Alan said. "It did."
Trust me, it all works. Or if it doesn't, it doesn't matter. Some of it should work for you. It's worth a try because this is an amazing display of talent. | August 2005
Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.