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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow. New York: Tor, 2005. ISBN: 0-765-31278-6

Wow! That's about the only realistic reaction to this book. It is, in my oh, so very humble opinion, merely one of the best SciFi books I've read in years. And yet it doesn't really read much like SciFi at all. Maybe it's more like fantasy. It's hard to categorize, frankly.

One of the standard themes in science fiction has always been unusual people, or people with unusual talents. You know, like para psychological abilities: extra-sensory perception, or the ability to teleport, or mental telepathy. Children growing up with special powers are often featured in stories of this type. From “The Golden Age” of Science Fiction there's Slan (1940), by A.E. van Vogt, or More Than Human (1953) by Theodore Sturgeon. Much later you have such classics as (Extra)ordinary People (1985) by Joanna Russ and the Talents universe series by Anne McCaffrey (although I personally found McCaffrey's version fairly tedious). And these are just a small sample of the many stories based on this premise.

Well, here in Cory Doctorow's universe you have what has to be one of the strangest such stories ever conceived. We have a family of kids whose father is a mountain (quite literally), and whose mother is a washing machine. As a means of communicating their basic “otherness,” I suppose, none of them has a single name, but their names are alphabetical, and change, willy nilly all the time. The oldest, who is also the primary protagonist of the story, is Alan, and his name doesn't change much, if at all. But his next brother is Billy or Bobbie, or Buddy, or Benny, or Brendan, or Brian, or Bradley . . . you get the idea. The name changes from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and no one seems to notice except you, the reader.

Craig, the third brother, is an island. Literally. But the rest of the boys are at least semi-human, although Ed, Fred and George (or is that Edward-Felix-Gerald?) are like Russian nesting dolls: they quite literally fit one inside another, and only George has the capability of digesting food for all three of them. Without him, the others would presumably starve to death. But they can, and do, separate, and run around acting like separate individuals.

Oh, and I forgot to mention Daveysometimes Danny, David or Darren—but mostly just Davey, the black sheep of the family. He seems to be nothing but evil to the core, and eventually the other brothers kill and bury him, but unfortunately he comes back as a zombie, and starts killing or dragging them off, one by one.

This all sounds quite bizarre and melodramatic, but I promise you, the book reads nothing like what I've just described. The book reads (most of the time) like a fairly ordinary story about Alan fixing up his house, working with an acquaintance to establish a short-range peer based wireless network all over their part of town, and other relatively mundane pursuits. In between we get the story of how the kids grew up, living in a cave in their father, the mountain, going to school, and trying to learn how to be like humans.

Until Alan meets Mimi, the beautiful girl with her own secret. She has wings, real wings growing out of her shoulders. Her erstwhile boyfriend cuts them off every so often, so that she can pass as normal. And, there are a couple of nice, unexpected plot twists near the end to look forward to as you read.

And what librarian (such as myself) could possibly resist a book which has this paragraph in it, describing Alan's experience at the local public library:

The Deweys were fascinating. They traced the fashions of human knowledge and wisdom. It was easy enough to understand why the arbiters of the system placed subdivided Motorized Land Vehicles (629.2) into several categories, but here in the 629.22s, where the books on automobiles were, you could see the planners' deficiences. Automobiles divided into dozens of subcategories (taxis and limousines, buses, light trucks, cars, lorries, tractor-trailers, campers, motorcycles, racing cars, and so on), the ramified into a combinatorial explosion of sub-sub-subcategories. There were Dewey numbers on some of the automotive book spines that had twenty digits or more after the decimal, an entire Dewey Decimal system hidden between 629.2 and 629.3.

Well, I've probably told you way too much about the book, and have probably turned you off with its surface weirdness, but if you are any kind of science fiction fan at all, you should definitely read this book. It's highly entertaining, and highly recommended. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that I reviewed one of Doctorow's earlier books, Eastern Standard Tribe, almost a year ago, back in January of 2005. Also an excellent read.

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