Genre Science Fiction Publisher Tor Year Published 2005 Review Posted on 5/25/2005 Reviewer Rating
7 out of 10
Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, by Cory Doctorow
Reviewed by Jack Mangan
If you've read this book, why not
In Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, Alan and his five brothers are sons of a northern Canadian mountain, literally. Their father is the mountain and their mother... is a washing machine. Wait! Stop! Just bear with me and keep reading. Yes, it's metaphorical, but it's presented as fact within the story. The boys grow up in a fantasy world inside of their mountain father, with goblins and golems to help raise them and their mother to wash their clothes and rock them with her cycles and feed the babies with her tubes. Alan's brother Brad is clairvoyant, but otherwise passably human like him, save the missing belly-buttons. His brother Charlie is an island, literally. Then there is Dave, the vicious, evil one, and Ed, Fred, and George, a trio of boys born a month apart that fit inside of each other and rely upon each other for feeding. Note that their names are aligned alphabetically in order of birth. More on their names in a minute.
They're aware of the outside "normal" world, and Alan, the most humanlike, is the first, and really the only one to venture out into that world, to try attending school and later to make something of himself. When we are introduced to him, he's in his thirties, retired from his brief stint as an owner of retail junk and book shops, moving now into his new home with his inventoried collection of books and oddities, determined to write a story in this new house. There are four twenty-ish kids neighboring him in his new house; a brother and sister who reluctantly befriend him, a girl he calls Mimi who's distant and distrustful, and her boyfriend Krishna, who is openly hostile. He soon learns that Mimi has wings hidden under her shirt, is as inhuman as he is. It is later revealed that Krishna's a normal human with the ability to spot their kind.
A secondary storyline begins when he befriends a techno-savvy punk named Kurt, who builds workable PCs from parts he finds in dumpsters. He then partners in Kurt's mission to set up wireless access points to strategically place wireless access points and grant free internet access to everyone in their neighborhood (and then all of Toronto, and then the whole world!). This storyline is extremely well thought-out and interestingly conveyed, but I rushed impatiently through these sections to get back to the main thread: Adam's dysfunctional family.
Alan's past is revealed in snippets and flashbacks. We learn just how truly evil brother Davey was, why the brothers killed him and buried him inside of brother Curt's soil (the island), of the easy, relieved peace during the period while Davey is dead, and then of the jagged tension when Davey returns.
The boys are uncertain of their identities, their nature, and their origins, and Art is sometimes frustrated when no answers are forthcoming. Craig Doctorow uses this uncertainty to employ a really neat device throughout the book; Adam and his brothers' names are never static, they change constantly while always keeping the same first letter. It's a trick that every author will wish they'd thought of. Brad is sometimes Billy or Brent or Bobby. And Davey is sometimes Doug or Darrell. This same ambiguity is also applied to his inhuman neighbor, Mimi, who never tells her real name.
In typical Doctorow fashion, the strangely brilliant ideas fly at you from one page to the next. This book covers a lot of territory and is about a lot of things, but at its core, is a classic evil antagonist vs. good protagonist story, with brother Davey as the villain and Alan as the hero. Their story is reflected in Mimi's troubles with Krishna, just as clear parallels can be drawn between both good guys and both bad guys. Danny hates Alan with terrifying, relentless fervor, and will apparently stop at nothing to cause Alan pain and unhappiness. No one is safe from Davey. No one. Al is a strong, three-dimensional, likable character. But Dave is such a fantastic, unforgettable villain because he is so utterly inflexible, unmovable, unreachable, beyond redemption. I can't remember the last time that I personally felt such loathing toward a character in a book or a film.
In Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, Cory Doctorow has written a novel for connoisseurs of the written word. This book is the "Sailing the Seas of Cheese" of the literary Science Fiction world; weirdness incarnate, disturbing at times, an utter rejection of mainstream sensibilities, yet delivered with masterful technical skill and a twisted sense of humor. Also like that Primus album, it's not for everyone, but is strangely accessible and appealing to the sophisticated, seasoned, open-minded audience.
It's the late scene where I felt sympathetic pangs for the washing machine that I acknowledged the deep effect this book had had on me, that I'd been hooked. Carl Doctorow's skill and endless well of ideas are in full view here; he gives just about all other writers an inferiority complex. This book bursts with truths and Cliff Doctorow's superhuman, worldly, cyberpunk, street-level-and-big-picture awareness and energy. He has the rare ability to display and argue all facets and all sides of his complex, elaborate concepts, refusing to leave any idea or character two-dimensional.
Ugly at times, beautiful at others, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is not for everyone. But if it's for you, it will infect your dreams and waking thoughts while reading, and haunt your memory long after you've finished.