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Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town
Cory Doctorow
Tor, 320 pages

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town
Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow was born in Toronto, in 1971. He has sold fiction since the age of 17. His story, "Craphound," was published in Science Fiction Age. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was his first novel.

Cory Doctorow Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Eastern Standard Tribe
SF Site Review: A Place So Foreign
SF Site Review: Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

Cory Doctorow deserves a lot of credit for writing a book like Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, because he could have written an easier book, a tamer book, a book that wasn't so goofy or passionate or so every which way, so loose. He could have written a book that held together better, that followed its premises a bit farther, that was shorter and sharper and shockier, but that book would be a less charming book, a more ordinary one.

It is a good thing that this is not an ordinary book. It contains at least a couple of paragraphs that deserve to be made into T-shirts and postcards, just for the fun of it, just to see the looks they would elicit from passing strangers.

Alan's father was a mountain, and his mother was a washing machine -- he kept a roof over their heads and she kept their clothes clean.
Insert line breaks, and that could be a Shel Silverstein ditty. Call it an allegory, and it might be enough to fuel a dozen gender studies. Doctorow being a science fiction writer, though, he follows the idea through:
His brothers were: a dead man, a trio of nesting dolls, a fortune-teller, and an island. He only had two or three family portraits, but he treasured them, even if outsiders who saw them often mistook them for landscapes. There was one where his family stood on his father's slopes, Mom out in the open for a rare exception, a long tail of extension cords snaking away from her to the cave and the diesel generator's three-prong outlet. He hung it over the mantel, using two hooks and a level to make sure that it came out perfectly even.
If more books contained such absurdly delightful paragraphs, compulsive reading would be a less painful and disappointing endeavor. The problem such a paragraph creates for Doctorow, though, as it would for any author, is to live up to it, and to continue providing. He does his best, and I'm reluctant to criticize someone capable of writing that paragraph for giving the book as slack a middle as it has, but delight is the reader's heroin: we want more, and we want it stronger than the last time, and withdrawal tends to make us grumpy. Nonetheless, there's more delight in these pages than in racks and rows of more conventional books.

I called Doctorow a science fiction writer, and I did so deliberately, because there's a difference between how a science fiction writer approaches an absurd premise and how a graduate of the School of Kafka (off Mumble's Road) approaches an absurd premise. Science fiction writers tend to like their fantasies logical -- L.E. Modesitt's Magic of Recluce is a fine example of this, of a writer taking the skills he polished writing semi-hard SF and applying them to a world of magic. Doctorow goes even farther, applying the lessons of science fiction not to all things medieval and Tolkienesque, but to the slipperier streams of oddball contemporary fantasy, the landscapes of Kelly Link and Jonathan Lethem and R.A. Lafferty. Doctorow leaves unexplained a few of the larger mysteries in his tale so that a core of inexplicability can lurk like an engendering id, while everything else becomes rationalized in the greatest of geekboy traditions -- the ghosts of Gernsback and Campbell hover over many of the pages, just as others evoke echoes of Ellison and the brattier cards in the New Wave pack. Looked at with a sensitive, and perhaps slightly crazy, eye, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is no less than an apotheosis of the history of science fiction -- as fantasy.

Of course, there's the internet, too. This is a Doctorow book, and on certain days, when the WiFi is calibrated just right, Cory Doctorow is the apotheosis of what we talk about when we talk about The Web. I'm sure plenty of unique visitors to this book will find the long discussions of how to create a free, decentralized metropolitan wireless network just the thing to boing their boings (remember that ghost of Gernsback?), but those of us who were picked last for both kickball and the math team might have appreciated it if at least a few of those pages were relegated to a footnote, or an appendix, or a web site of their own.

A few techies probably think the same thing about the sex scenes, or the loving descriptions of bookshelves, or -- well, any number of items, really. This is a devoutly democratic book, both in its politics and its practices, leaving a little bit of something for everybody, good and bad. That's where the charm comes in. A more authoritarian novel might be more authoritatively great, but the key to the charm here lies in the eclectic populism and aw-shucks anarchy of letting each scene last just a little bit too long, so that it can include a little something for everybody. The structure of the book looks at the end a lot like the wireless network Doctorow's characters so lovingly envision: scavenged, clever, fragmented, cooperative, messy, redundant, and so ridiculous that you'd never believe it unless you experienced it for yourself.

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal,, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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