Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (shortened to just Someone from here on out) is the first fiction by Cory Doctorow that I have read. It is a bizarre story about a man who is often called Alan, though that’s not his name, who is the son of a mountain and washing machine. If that sounds odd to you, that’s ok, it is odd. And that’s only the beginning. In fact, Cory himself calls the book his “weirdest book by far“. It also, however, is a lot of fun.
Cory exists on an ephemeral list that I call “Smart People Who Do Smart Things That I Respect”. It’s a list I keep meaning to actually write down. He’s on it primarily because of his activities in the Free Software and Free Culture realms. He also seems to have fairly sane political views, which is a cherry on top for eligibility for The List. I’ve read a lot of his non-fiction stuff and it’s all smart, concise, and accessible. In short, I like him. After I finished Burn, I dove back into Aldiko’s Creative Commons section, and came up with this. Like movies, I tend to stay pretty ignorant about books until I’m actually looking for something to read, usually just gravitating to genres and authors I know I like and picking something up on the spur of the moment. That is how I found Someone.
The book bounces around in time, back and forth from Alan’s childhood and the “present day” of his adulthood. Present Alan has just moved into a new house, filled it with shelves that he’s filled with books and other curios, and intends to sit down to write a book. He never gets to the book though, derailed by the abuses of nefarious neighbor Krishna, infatuation with the classic girl-next-door Mimi (who has wings), the techno pipe-dreams of anarchist friend Kurt, and the arrival of his Matryoska doll brothers Edward, and Frederick. They show up on his doorstep early on in the story to report that Gregory (the smallest of the set) is missing, and they fear that their psychotic brother Davey has returned from the dead to seek revenge. This is particularly distressing for E and F, because without G, they cannot eat.
From there, the story runs away with Alan as he tries to solve the mystery of Gregory’s disappearance and deal with the repercussions of Davey’s return. It’s well crafted, entertaining, and the weirdness soon falls away and you come to accept the realities of this world. The flashbacks to Alan’s youth where he meets his first love are particularly endearing and heartbreaking. As are his interactions with his brothers.
The one major complaint I have about the book has to do with the parts involving the creation of the wireless mesh network with his cyberpunk buddy Kurt. The project serves as a means to bring the two together and to move their relationship forward, but the technical explanations of things feel heavy-handed and out of place. It could be that they are talking about things I understand already, so the information covered didn’t add anything for me, but it really felt like a kludgy delivery. It was almost as if Doctorow finished the story and then said to himself, “But wait! I’m known for all my techy and free culture stuff! I have to stick that in there somewhere!”, and then proceeded to bolt on those pieces after the fact. If I were king, I would have kept the concept of the mesh network project since it was genuinely interesting and served as a good engine for moving the story forward in a number of ways, but ditched the overbearing technobabble exposition. It just didn’t add the to story. In fact, the first instance of this happens relatively early, before I was used to the weirdness of it all, and the two together were almost enough to drive me away. I’m glad I didn’t stop as I really enjoyed the rest of the book. I fear though that many people will get to that point, their eyes will glaze over, and they will miss out on a really great tale because they put it aside prematurely.
Bottom line, go read it, and try not to get too hung up on the oddly placed techy details. 4/5