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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

by Ken Newquist / August 2, 2005

... and someone gets confused. Ok, I'm not really confused: more like mystified. Boing-Boing blogger-turned-science fiction writer Cory Doctorow's new book Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is a weird mix of geek-centric technology and post-modern mythology that is either brilliant or moronic.

I'll need to read more before I know for sure, but either way the novel's disconcerting. The book's about a man named Alan. Or Albert. Or Alfred. Or whatever -- the main character's name changes constantly based on whom he's talking to.

Regardless of his name, the character's an eccentric entrepreneur who bank rolls his enterprises using gold currency (libertarians rejoice) and who has recently decided to go into semi-retirement and write a book. To that end, he buys a beat up old house in Toronto and spends a winter gutting it and making friends with the neighbors ... and a few enemies (or at least a few antagonists). He also goes on a quest for optimum wireless connectivity, which will allow him to research and write his book from anywhere within a few dozen blocks of his house.

All that sounds pretty normal, if somewhat geeky. But Alan is anything but normal. Because it turns out that he's from a very different kind of family. His father is a mountain. His mother is a dishwasher. Three of his brothers are organic versions of those Russian nesting dolls, with one living inside another. Another of his brothers is an island; still another is an undead corpse whom he and his other siblings murdered years ago, and whom has returned to terrorize them. None of this is simile or metaphor; Alan's father isn't like a mountain. He really is a mountain, like a demigod of old, albeit one who happened to fall in love with a kitchen appliance.

Something Familiar, Something Weird

Normally I wouldn't review a book without finishing it, but hey, this is a different kind of book, so I figured I'd write a different kind of review.

At first glance, Doctorow's writing style calls to mind the detail-oriented cyberpunkists, particularly Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and William Gibson's Pattern Recognition. An infatuation with technology subsumes the book, and Doctorow happily has his characters spend a few pages talking about meshed wireless networks and ad hoc wireless access points built using computers collected on dumpster diving expeditions.

And then he goes and gets weird on us. Here's an example from the book:

Once the house was gutted to brick and timber and delirious wood, the plumbers and the electricians came in and laid down their straight shining ducts and pipes and conduit.

Alan tarped the floors and brought in the heavy sandblaster and stripped the age and soot and gunge off of the brickwork throughout, until it glowed red as a golem's ass.

Alan's father, the mountain, had many golems that call him home. They lived round the other side of his father and left Alan and his brothers alone, because even a golem has sense not to piss off a mountain, especially one it lives in.

My first thought when reading this, coming as it did after paragraphs discussing Alan’s loving demolition of the interior of his house, was “is this guy nuts?” Reading on, and realizing that he was serious, I had another, more interesting thought: “is it possible for a character in a fantasy world to be insane … and if so, how would you know?”

I’m not talking “conquer the world” mad – I’m talking “meet my invisible friend Bernie – he’s from Mars” mad. In a fantasy world, it’s all too possible for a man’s father to be a mountain, so the only way to know for sure that he’s telling the truth – and not just a loon – would be to go look for the mountain (and how’s that for an adventure hook? Proving that a major NPC isn’t as crazy as he appears).

As the book has unfolded, the weirdness has managed to make me curious – I find myself wondering if Doctorow can actually pull off this bizarre geek mythology, or whether it’ll collapse under its own oddity. Though not as compelling reason to read a book as say, a good plot, it does seem to be working. Time will tell.

Final Analysis

Postmodern fiction isn’t normally my thing, and I’ll admit that while this book piqued my interest when I heard about it, it’s not the sort of thing I’d have read if I hadn’t received a review copy. Even now it battles mightily for my attention against Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and The Dark Tower VII (and is winning out more often than not because it’s far more portable than either of those books).

Details

  • Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town
  • by Cory Doctorow
  • Tor Books
  • 320 pages
  • ISBN: 0765312786
  • MSRP: $24.95
  • Buy it from Amazon.com