Someone Comes to Town by Cory Doctorow

Here is my end review of Cory Doctorow’s strange, yet very intriguing book Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.

I must say that this is possibly one of the strangest books I have read lately. Cory Doctorow manages to accomplish something nearly impossible – he produces a modern day fairy tale which seamlessly merges fantastic creatures, and high technology. Even though he writes about clay golems, goblins, winged women, and undead the tone, language and style he uses grounds the story in the present time and reality. Cory places his strange characters in a very mundane, and very real environment which he describes with painstaking detail and realism.

Furthermore he does not make a big deal of all the strangeness he describes. He also does not ignore it. He creates this careful balance in which the fantastic elements are addressed only as much as it is necessary to sustain readers interest. We find out Alan’s and Mimi’s history, in small bite sized pieces as the plot moves forward and the more we know about their strange origins or conditions the more believable they become. These characters are multidimensional, and alive. They are personalities, rather than just names on the paper…

Doctorow actually makes names meaningless in his novel. Throughout the book names of the brothers are interchanged, and used randomly. Alan is referred to as Art, Andy and even Andreas. Davey becomes Darryl or Drew and so on. The only constant is the first letter, but the exact form or pronunciation of the names is very mutable and changes at the whim of the author. Similarly, the real name of the winged girl is never revealed. Alan calls her Mimi and this is how she is known throughout the book.

This reinforces the strangeness of these odd characters, and at the same time illustrates their own uncertainty about their origins and nature.

The story sucked me in completely. I found it very easy to identify with Alan. I guess everyone sometimes feels like a social outcast in one way or another. Since I was raised in a foreign culture, and I’m a huge geek I often find myself outside of the mainstream social context. Fortunately, I’m usually able to almost pass for “normal” person, or at least blend in. :P Alan on the other hand is not even certain that he is really human. He is the epitomy of a social outcast. Anyone who have ever felt left out in some way, can probably empathize with this character.

I especially enjoyed the slow uncovering of the brothers’ history. The Kurt subplot while full of seemingly geek friendly technical babble was not all that interesting. Perhaps it’s the repetition that got me… How many times can one define, and redefine this wireless network thing that they were attempting to build? At times I had to force myself to plow through yet another re-definition, and re-description to get to the juicier parts of the story.

On the other hand I must give Cory a credit for attempting to be technologically competent. He actually mentions BSD by name, and it seems that he really did his homework on wireless networking. But, while he tries to drown you in technical detail he still somehow manages to stay at a very high and abstract level. He never reveals any specs for this network… There is precious little detail. It’s mostly nicely packaged buzzwords flying left and right. It’s like marketing pitch…

Perhaps that’s what bothers me about it. I don’t buy market-spiel. I bet this stuff makes the more technologically cluefull readers with degrees in marketing and business drool. But I’m a geek, and I want facts, specs and detail!

All in all this is a very good book. I enjoyed it throughly!

I’ll leave you with this: never before have I read a more moving, tear jerking scene depicting the last throes of a washing machine :P And if that doesn’t say something about Doctorow’s writing, I don’t know what will.

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