Cory Doctorow has an interesting take on books. He believes that if he gives away free electronic copies, that folks will buy his work. Frankly, I believe him. Additionally, I like the thought of being able to get an electronic copy of every book I own. Mainly, because it's a hassle to carry around a small library with me whenever I go on trips.
But I digress. I recently checked out of the library a physical copy of Doctorow's novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (ISBN: 0765312786, free download available here), and I have to say I'm impressed. This is a hardback edition clocking in at a decent 315 pages. Not long, but not so short that I'd worry over it. What is obscenely long though is the front cover blurb, which says this:
With Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Easter Standard Tribe, Cory Doctorow established himself as one of the leading voices of next-generation SF: inventive, optimistic, and comfortable with the sheer strangeness of tomorrow. Now Doctorow returns with a novel of wrenching oddity, heartfelt technological vision, and human pity set on the streets of Toronto today.Ouch, that hurt typing all of that out. I'm hesitant to say this blurb works or not. While I'm not obscenely fond of its length, the story does not really narrow down far enough for a shorter blurb than that. Sadly, though, I'm thinking I'm going to have to go with it doesn't work, as it doesn't tell me why I should buy this book. I know NOW, after having read the whole thing, why I should buy this novel, and take a serious look at his other works, but that doesn't really help things when I'm standing in a bookstore, holding two different books in my hands and can only buy one.
Alan is a middle-aged entrepreneur in contemporary Toronto who has devoted himself to fixing up a house in the bohemian neighborhood of Kensington. This naturally brings him in contact with the house full of students and layabouts next door, including a young woman who, in a moment of stress, reveals to him that she has wings--wings, moreover, that grow back after each attempt to cut them off.
Alan understands. He himself has a secret or two. His father is a mountain, his mother is a washing machine, and among his brothers is a set of Russian nesting dolls.
Now tow of the three nesting dolls, Edward and Frederick, are on his doorstep--well on their way to starvation because their innermost member, George, has vanished. It appears that yet another brother, Davey, whom Alan and his other siblings killed years ago, may have returned... bent on revenge.
Under such circumstances it seems only reasonable for Alan to involve himself with a visionary scheme to blanket Toronto with free wireless Internet connectivity, a conspiracy spearheaded by a brilliant technopunk who builds miracles of hardware from parts scavenged from the city's Dumpsters. But Alan's past won't leave him alone--and Davey is only one of the powers gunning for him and all his friends.
Wildly imaginative, constantly whipsawing us between the preposterous, the amazing, and the deeply felt, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is unlike any novel you have ever read.
Regardless, we've got two major plotlines going on here. The first is the technopunk stuff. It revolves around Kurt and his plan to blanket Toronto with free wireless Internet connectivity via a WiFi "meshnet." It's an intriguing plotline, one that almost settles into the form of traditional cyberpunk, but lacks the dystopic and anti-establishment commonly found in that genre. It's an interesting take on democracy and the freedom of speech and how that relates to companies like the Bell's. In a personally amusing twist, it is the establishment (symbolized by the IT department of the local phone company) which helps the most with this plot, while the heroes of traditional cyberpunk (a group of Anarchists, who all go by the name Waldo) stifle it. The second plot involves Alan and his brothers: A precog, an island, a dead boy, and a set of Russian nesting dolls, and the family dynamics that build them. Flowing in and through this particular plot, is a secondary plot involving the people who live next door to Alan, including the girl with wings. It's a story of fratricide, murder, jealousy and love. In other words, we have all the ingredients for a Greek tragedy, and for the most part that's how it plays out.
Characters, are of course Alan, the eldest son of a mountain and a washing machine. His 6 brothers, Kurt the technopunk, and then the four kids who live in the house next door to Alan. Doctorow did something interesting with names here though. Most of the characters, especially the brothers, do not have names in the traditional sense. Alan answers to any name starting with an 'A' and will call his brothers by various names, all starting with the next letter of the alphabet (B, C, D, E, F, & G). I know I'm getting into some of the theme material here, but it's highly relevant, so stick with me. This thing about names, has startled me slightly, and because of a discussion with someone over IM, I had written an entry on why I use my real name online these days at one of my other blogs: The KrashPAD. Relevant here, is the quote from Milton Acorda I used in that piece:
Without freedom, no one really has a name.Think about it. Alan spends much of this book, fighting for freedom. Freedom from his past, and what he is. Freedom of speech in the technopunk plot. Just, pure, simple, freedom. Then couple that to the fact that he doesn't really have a name. Just an alphabetized nomenclature. The article for this novel on Wikipedia wonders if this could be related to the relative namelessness of our modern communication devices, but it reads more to me as if Alan, in effect searching for freedom, is also looking for the name which he can be called. Which is a relevant POV, as the narrator consistently refers to Alan as "Alan."
And since I'm discussing theme, I guess I'll continue on with it. Outside this hunt for name and the freedom that a name requires, we also have a similar thematic issue as Ghost in the Shell. There are serious questions on what makes up humanity. How far outside the norm does your family have to be before they stop being 'human' and start being 'monsters.' In probably the most ironic line I've read in a while, Krishna, the wing-girl's (Mimi as she is called) boyfriend, tells Alan that he can see others like Alan, the monsters as Krishna refers to them, and he does this without ever once stopping to realize that he himself is different from baseline humans by this ability. But, I seem to wandered onto a digression while I wasn't paying attention. We are left wondering if Alan and Mimi are human or not. This is answered from a certain point of view in the novel itself, when Alan is talking to his first love about it:
"Are you... human, Alan?"It's a poignant answer from a junior high student's POV, and the only one which the characters or the narrator is willing to provide. Which is not a bad thing, after all, Science-Fiction is about making you think.
"I think so," he said. "I bleed. I eat. I sleep. I think and talk and dream."
She squeezed his hands and darted a kiss at him. "You kiss," she said.
But back to the characters. The named characters are all brilliantly thought out. From the anarchists, who as a group all have the given name of "Waldo" to the girl with wings, who never gives a name for herself, but is merely called Mimi. The way he plays with names also touch on the fundamental aspects of who these characters are. For example, Kurt and his obvious ties to cyberpunk (and I'm wondering here if this Kurt is so-named because of the bartender from Neuromancer), and Krishna and his hatred of "monsters."
Truth be told, Mimi's story is the one that sings to me the most. She is so obviously distraught in and of herself. Worried about what she is, and how she fits into society as a whole. Those are issues that I struggled with in my later teen years. I wondered why I didn't fit in with my peer group, and can feel sympathetic pain for her because of this.
While, I'd be hard-pressed to declare this outright science-fiction, it is a fully realized fantasy story at its best. The themes of humanity and the desire to fit in and belong blend perfectly with the classical tragedy elements found in the relationship between Alan and his brothers. Even if they're not human, their story ultimately is. Frankly, this is a startlingly beautiful book, that is poignant in the story and lesson it tries to impart.
In the end, I give this a solid 3.9 out of 4.