September 2005

Colleen Mondor


Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow

When I read that Cory Doctorow’s latest book, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, was about a man sometimes called Alan, who was the son of a mountain and a washing machine, I was both intrigued and scared. There was a potential here for a very gimmicky story, a story that cared more about weirdness and shock value then anything else. But I liked Doctorow’s contributions to and thought Dave McKean’s cover art was amazing so I decided to give the book a go. Wow. Just -- wow.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is the story of Alan (who is also called dozens of different names beginning with the letter “A,” as his parents weren’t too keen on committing to any one in particular). Alan lives in Toronto, where he is a middle-aged entrepreneur who has owned everything from a vintage clothing store to an antique shop. He’s the kind of guy who likes to meet people and quickly sets out to make friends with his new neighbors: Mimi, Natalie, Link and Krishna. He discovers a kindred spirit in Kurt, a man determined to bring free wireless to all of Toronto, and sets out to help him reach his goal of liberating the Internet for everyone.

This all sounds very cyberpunkish and on one level, as Kurt and Alan plot to spread the Internet, it is most definitely a book about the price and use of technology. But as Alan’s life seems to be leading him in a new and fruitful direction his brothers begin to return to his world, traveling down from the paternal mountain they have lived on all their lives and hinting at dark and terrifying possibilities. It seems that Davey, a psychopathic sibling whom all of them killed several years before and returned from the dead, is now bent on vicious revenge. The Russian nesting doll brothers are running for their lives and desperate for Alan to save them. As he ponders the seriousness of the threat, and wonders what became of his second brother, Billy (or Burt or Blake), his relationship with Mimi takes a sudden and surprising turn. And that’s when Alan learns that no one is really normal in the world. We are all in fact just different versions of normal or as he tells Krishna, “[I’m] just about what I seem, I’m afraid. Just a guy.”

You have to wonder what normal is and how Alan, whose brothers are “a dead man, a trio of nesting dolls, a fortuneteller and an island” could somehow be a character so easily identifiable to a reader. It’s that whole concept of "different" that we always seem to have so much trouble getting past: different skin color, different religion, different names and haircuts and styles of dress. We like to cling to our cliquish sameness to justify our fear of everyone else. Alan has fallen into that habit himself and has been working very hard at being as not unusual as possible. Surprisingly, so has Mimi. But denying your true self never works out, particularly when that denial causes so much pain. And anyone who wants you to pass as someone you’re not, well those are the people to avoid at all costs. (Don’t even get me started on Krishna, I’ll let you discover his vile self all on your own.)

Gene Wolfe has a blurb on the back of Doctorow’s book. He writes, “Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is a glorious book, but there are hundreds of those. It is more. It is a glorious book unlike any book you’ve read.” Wolfe is one of my favorite writers, and his praise cannot be discounted. He read Someone Comes to Town and recognized it for what it is: a piece of original art that should be read and enjoyed and endure in both the science fiction and literary canons This kind of work does not come along all too often; in fact I doubt you will ever see anything like it. And even though Doctorow had no master plan when he wrote the book, (he wrote me, “Y'know, I never know what my books are about -- all the thematic stuff emerges in retrospect. Re-reading my stuff, I can see all kinds of stuff that I had no I idea I was writing about at the time. If you see liberty as an issue in this, then it's most certainly there: it's something I spend a lot of time writing, talking and thinking about, so I have no doubt that that was one of the major themes of the book, but you're as qualified to determine the truth of that statement as I am: I'm just the writer…”), an overall impression of freedom and individuality clearly emerges by the final pages.

I found Someone Comes to Town to be a great celebration of life and a novel that manages to be downright scary at times while still utterly resplendent with hope. It made me think not only about the true nature of families but also who owns the right to control information in the Internet age. I am eagerly looking forward to Doctorow’s next book, tentatively titled Themepunks and promising another wild ride combining technology and humanity. Nobody else writes like this guy and I mean that as the highest of compliments.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow
Tor Books
ISBN 0765312786
315 pages