01/09/2005. Contributed by Paul Skevington
pub: TOR. 315 page hardback. Price: $24.95 (US), $34.95 (CAN). ISBN: 0-765-31278-6.
check out website: www.tor.com
Cory Doctorow has produced some astounding work in the last few years. 'Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom' was a stunning debut. 'Eastern Standard Tribe' was a fascinating vision a future organised by time zones.
'Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town' surpasses both of these novels, in depth, breadth, scope and meaning. It's one of the year's most important books and this is why.
In brief, the story concerns a man(?) whose father is a mountain and whose mother is a washing machine. He has seven brothers: a clairvoyant, a hate-filled psychopath, three nesting dolls and an island. The man left the mountain many years ago in an attempt to live as a human and seems to have succeeded to a certain degree. He has had many successful businesses. As we join him, he is moving into a new house that he personally overseen its re-decoration. He wants it to be perfect, as he plans to settle down in the house to write a short story. He doesn't know what the story is going to be about, only that he will write it. Whilst staying at the house he meets his neighbours, one of which he is instantly attracted to. She is unusual in that she is hiding a fine set of wings underneath her top and no, that's not some sort of bizarre euphemism, she literally has wings. Along the way he meets a techno-revolutionary who has a scheme to provide free Internet access to the whole neighbourhood. This scheme will become a serious distraction for our man, as his story steadfastly refuses to get written. Most importantly a terrible event in his past comes back to haunt him, with devastating consequences.
It is a narrative of infinite complexity, yet every element is essential. It's ideas and themes are rigidly interlocked, yet there is still an ambiguity at its edges. It's as if Doctorow has assembled a thousand piece jigsaw-puzzle and then kicked the table over. What is left is less definable, but infinitely more interesting.
The books primary theme is one that is central to Science Fiction. As Farah Mendlesohn states in her introduction to 'The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction '...sf...values alienation as the central element of character.' The concept of alienation, both in the aforementioned meaning of emotional distance and also of social distancing, is key to understanding this text. The main character looks human, but he is subtly different. His understanding of the concept of parenthood is substantially unlike ours. The majority of his siblings appear even less human than he does. Much of the plot focuses on the perceived necessity to conform to society and the trauma this inflicts on the individual. The girl with the wings, Mia, has them cut off so that she can function in the outside world. The protagonist constantly has to check himself to make sure that he is sounding 'normal'. It's an exaggeration of an experience that most people can identify with to some degree.
You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned the names of the central character or his brothers. This is because the names of the brothers change throughout the book, whilst always beginning with the same letter. Amazingly this is not hard to follow at all. It is also another example of alienation, this time a take on a classically Brechtian technique, distancing the reader from the text as we are made to realise the unreality of the events depicted.
'Someone Comes To Town' is not just about alienation though, it's also about reconciliation. It is the interweaving of these two elements that make this book so special. The scheme of the protagonist (who is most often named Alan) and the techno-savvy Kurt to provide free communication is an exercise in cohesion, of coming together. It is rare within the novel for anyone to show antipathy towards the scheme itself, even when they are at war with its instigators. The depiction of this plan is particularly good, which is unsurprising as Doctorow is a key member of the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), a digital civil rights group, but I digress.
Crucial to this sense of cohesion are the characters in the novel, who serve to draw the reader closer to its emotional heart; they are fantastically realised, unique and unforgettable. Reading them is like looking at an old water-stained photograph: you can make out the shapes of people, a smile here and a frown there, at the same time they seem to be magically unreal - the material and the ephemeral used to exquisite effect. Like a telekinetic, this book has the power to move you with thought alone.
This is one of the few books where I feel that everything is as it should be, stylistically and structurally it seems as if the finished product exactly matches the original plan. As with all his other novels you can download it for free from the author's website, but I urge you to buy it, because the world needs more books like this.
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