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REVIEW: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow

REVIEW SUMMARY: An eclectic mix of interesting ideas wrapped in a unique package.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A man from a seriously unconventional family must come to terms with his undead, revenge-seeking brother – and blanket Toronto with free wireless Internet connectivity.


PROS: Interesting storylines; to-the-point writing style; inventive ideas regarding WiFi access; unique blend of ideas.

CONS: WiFi storyline felt somewhat disconnected; character name-switching; weak ending.

BOTTOM LINE: Tells an interesting story in an unconventional way that makes it worth the read.

Although on one level it reads like mainstream fiction, Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town has several distinct elements that dress it up as a modern-day fantasy. Either way it’s an engrossing story. The book takes a handful of ideas, mixes them together and serves up a uniquely blended tale that’s sure to make you think.

The story follows Alan (a.k.a. Adam, a.k.a. Andy and any other name that starts with “A”), ex-entrepreneur and author who moves into a house in Toronto and fixes it up so that he may write the one story that will make him posthumously famous. Alan’s young neighbors include Mimi, a woman who has wings, and the manipulative Krishna, a violent man who convinces Mimi that her wings should be cut off even after they grow back so that she can appear normal.

Alan understands Mimi’s situation because he comes from a rather unusual family. Alan’s father is a mountain and his mother is a washing machine. (“He kept a roof over their heads and she kept their clothes clean.”) Alan’s five younger brothers, in age order, are Bradley (a.k.a. Billy, a.k.a. Benny and any other name that stars with “B”), Charlie (or any other name that starts with “C”), Davey (ditto “D”), Edward (ditto with “E”), Frederick (ditto with “F”) and Gregory (ditto with “G”). Respectively, his brothers are someone who can foresee the future, an island, a dead man and a trio of living Russian nesting dolls.

One day, Edward and Frederick visit Alan at his city apartment with the news that their innermost member (“G”) is missing. Worse, they fear that he was taken by Davey, the brother who all of them conspired to (and did) kill years ago. Their undead brother is bent on revenge. In part, Alan responds by attempting to shroud Toronto in a web of free wireless Internet connectivity with the help of a cyber-anarchist named Kurt.

This is not what I would call a conventional novel, which is good because that made it feel fresh and different. While the main plot thread can easily be summarized as one of revenge (and revenge of the undead at that – always a crowd pleaser), there are several window-dressing elements that turn it on its ear.

The foremost unconventional element is Alan’s family. It takes a certain frame of mind to readily accept a hill of dirt and a major appliance as the parents of someone who looks like a normal human being. (The same frame of mind is needed to accept Mimi’s wings.) I couldn’t decide if this element was an ingenious literary device or just plain ridiculous. For the sake of enjoyment, I propped up my disbelief with extra-sturdy marble columns. The novel definitely worked better that way.

Another unique element for a modern fantasy story was the plot thread where Alan and Kurt try to offer free WiFi access to Toronto. The concepts presented were way cool. It involved a series of wireless access points made on-the-cheap thanks to some fruitful dumpster-diving sessions. Technology is familiar ground for the author whose extra-curricular activities as Outreach Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation infused the WiFi storyline with excitement and wow-factor. His forward-thinking vision of technology comes screaming across the pages through lively characters and concise verbiage. I loved the scene where Alan and Kurt pitch the idea of citywide access points to “The Man” (the phone company) for advice.

As always, Cory’s writing style is clear, concise and fast moving. In the age of bloated multi-volume doorstops called books, that’s a big plus. One potential stumbling block might be the constant name-switching used when people reference Alan and his brothers. On the one hand their A through F naming order helps the reader remember their birth order. On the other hand, it throws the unwary reader for a loop when a “new” name is used every other paragraph for the same person. I could see how this name switching could add to the portrayal of Alan’s identity-crisis, but it was one literary device that the book could stand to do without. Instead, more effort should have been placed on a stronger ending which I felt was lacking the punch of earlier passages. Structurally speaking, the nonlinearity of the prose keeps the reader on his toes. Storylines alternate between Alan’s past, Davey’s revenge, Mimi’s search for normalcy and the WiFi project.

Through flashbacks we see that problem child Davey is less like a brother and more like the evil baby from It’s Alive. Their internal family relationships are made interesting because normal human interactions are just not possible. For example, how does a washing machine or a mountain say “I Love You?” Again, accepting the family for what it is helps those parts of the story move along and helps the reader concentrate on why it is that Alan wants to belong.

The “revenge of the undead” storyline added some suspense and was thankfully not played up as a horror element. It did seem odd, though, how Alan took the news of his undead brother in stride as if there was no real threat to his safety. Heck, his subsequent response was to give free Internet access to Toronto! This reaction was strange making the Kurt/WiFi storyline (cool as it was) seemed disconnected from the others. Later in the book, an attempt was made to link them by saying that Alan set up the network so he could study normal humans in hope that he might one day belong but, unfortunately, the WiFi storyline made the book appear slightly less cohesive.

But only slightly. The main themes presented (the search for one’s identity and a sense of belonging) provide the real cohesiveness of the book. Alan is simply not like the others no matter how hard he tries. His attempts to appear like a normal kid were always tempered a fear that others would find out the truth about his family. When he does meet Mimi and he learns about her wings, he can empathize and feel close to her. They both want to fit in. Mimi’s destructive relationship with Krishna is, in fact, fueled by her need to fit in. Identity and belonging are common themes which everyone can associate with easily.

Any faults this book has are minor in comparison with its virtues. The overall impression left by the book is a (dare I say) literary work that succeeds in entertaining and challenges the reader to stay on his toes. Since the author makes this book available for free download through the Creative Commons License it costs nothing to try it out. I suggest you do. Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town tells an interesting story in an unconventional way that makes it worth the read.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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