The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Somone Comes to Town...

by Steve Gajadhar

I’ve been binging on sci-fi lately, looking for something different, an escape from the restrictions (maybe even limitations) of standard literary fiction. Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow was my latest escape accomplice, and it was definitely something different.

Of all the swirling themes in the novel, difference—and the struggle to fit in caused by being different—is by far the strongest and most obvious. All of the main characters are “different,” some are not even human. Alan, the protagonist, is a monster, albeit not the scary kind. His father is a sentient mountain and his mother is a washing machine, his brothers include an island, a brother who knows the future, an undead demon, and 3 brothers that occasionally share one form in a Russian nesting doll arrangement. Mimi, Alan’s love interest, has a pair of wings that her original boyfriend, Krishna, periodically cuts off so that she can be “normal.” Kurt, though human, is a 30 something anarchist and also an anti-cyberpunk archetype. Doctorow further highlights the difference of Alan’s family members by employing a shifting naming convention for all of them. A fact Alan himself emphasizes when he is asked to repeat his name early on in the novel: “Alan, Adam, Andy. Doesn’t matter, I answer to any of them.” Doctorow also names them in alphabetical order. His second brother is known by B names, the third with C names, and so on. His neighbours in Toronto also share linked names, Krishna-Link-Mimi-Natalie.

The story takes place in Toronto and Kapuskasing. Kapuskasing is the flashback setting for Alan’s recollections of his unique childhood, his struggles with society, and his conflicts with his evil little brother Davey. Alan is the oldest and champions the need for all of the boys to assimilate into the real world, and so enrolls them all in school. Young Alan gets his first girlfriend, Marci (it is no coincidence that his later love interest is named Mimi, as naming and linking are such important aspects of the novel), a human girl who is his first tangible example of fitting in. After Alan introduces Marci to his mountain father, Davey kills and dismembers her, thus beginning his antagonist role of preventing Alan from ever fitting in, of reminding him of the undeniable gravity and difference of his origins. The brothers kill Davey and bury him within the island brother, Carlos. But Davey comes back from the dead and spends the rest of his life extracting revenge.

Toronto finds the grown Alan retired, and settling into a new house to write. His neighbours include Mimi and Krishna, and he eventually meets Kurt at a local hang out spot. Kurt and Alan team up with a goal of providing free wireless access to all of Toronto. Kurt uses discarded parts and street kid labor to fashion wireless broadcasting hubs that Alan then convinces merchants to install in their shops. Davey comes to town and attempts to kill Alan, but is thwarted by Kurt, the only other person Alan has ever let in on his family secret. Davey then begins to kill off the nesting doll brothers one by one. What follows is one of the most interesting end games of any novel I have ever read, and also one of the most hopeful and uplifting conclusions.

Doctorow even finds a way to push his manifesto of Creative Commons free distribution. The whole point of Kurt and Alan’s “unwired” Toronto is perfectly aligned with Doctorow’s own free distribution of all his solely authored works on his website, Doctorow has made it all available in various formats for all of us to download and read if we want, no strings attached. I for one don’t think e-books will ever replace their paper parents—at least not until they can make a reading device that looks, feels, and smells like paper—but the idea of free distribution is a welcome one in today’s world of digital rights management and the erosion of privacy that the internet and lawmakers are slowly trying to foist on us.

The book is not without its faults. It rambles through the middle, leaves quite a few plot lines unexplored, and fails to explain (or at least gloss over) a lot of the fantastical elements. In fact, much of the novel is as rough around the edges—prone to over description and wandering tangents that end nowhere—as its perfectly rough characters, but that is also part of the novel’s charm, and I bet Doctorow wanted it this way. This is an important book, a genre busting contemporary-postmodern-fabulist-fantasy-low tech- cyberpunk-thriller. It blows the China Meivilles of the SF world out of the water, and leaves me hopeful that we might be witnessing the birth of a Canadian M. John Harrison. Go Canada!


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I enjoyed Doctorow's story in last year's "Best American". Not at first, but it stuck with me. This novel sounds wildly inventive. I'm eager to read it. Thanks for sharing this, Steve.

Tue Aug 07, 09:19:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

Kapiskasing? Did I read that right? I spent a month there one weekend.

This definitely sounds like a great read, Steve. I don't know too many writers who could blow China M. out of the water!

Tue Aug 07, 11:10:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Steve. An interesting guy, this Cory. You inspired me to look him up. E.L. Doctorow won't confirm or deny that Cory is related. Hmm. Doesn't hurt to have that famous last name, though. This book sounds as if he gave his imagination free reign. I'll look for it.

Tue Aug 07, 03:52:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Dry lips went to Kapiskasing, I remember that. Not sure if this has anything to do with Tomson Highway's tale, but I'm starting to feel like I should go there. I love that; Canada should have more mythified towns!

Tue Aug 07, 04:11:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Thanks all, and make sure to check out this book.

Fri Aug 10, 06:24:00 pm GMT-4  

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