Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2005, 315 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31278-6

(Also freely available online at craphound.com/someone)

While his reputation in Science Fiction fandom is that of a die-hard tech-head, Cory Doctorow heads in a slightly different direction for his third novel: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is a self-consciously weird urban fantasy involving, to quote the jacket blurb, “secrets, lies, magic —and Internet connectivity.”

It begins as the amiable “A” moves into one of Toronto’s bohemian neighbourhoods, renovates a house and sets out to write a story. But “A” is no ordinary guy: Son of a mountain and a washing machine, his brothers are (in chronological order), a clairvoyant, an island, a psychopath and a set of three nestled men (like Russian dolls). What’s more, he hasn’t yet met the neighbours…

Oh yes, there’s little doubt that Doctorow is going for weird in his third novel. No one will be blamed for thinking, early on, that he’s laying on the strange paste a bit too thick: For the first few pages, one wonders if this novel is ever going to have internal coherency, or if this is just a random word salad.

What becomes clearer is that if the basics of Someone may have been random free-association, Doctorow spends so much time describing and explaining the mechanics of how, say, a mountain and a washing machine can raise children, that it almost ends up making sense. Somehow. In fact, it doesn’t take much time for more impatient readers to say “enough! Too much useless information!” Doctorow never knows when to stop, and things that are perfectly clear in the present-day storyline are nevertheless re-explained in detail through flashbacks.

Then there is the imperfect integration of the modern-day techno-thriller. This being a Doctorow novel, it doesn’t take a lot of time for protagonist “A” to become fascinated by the possibility of blanketing Toronto with wireless points of Internet access. It becomes a major subplot of the book, complete with pages of exposition on how neat this is all going to be. Not uninteresting, but seriously out of whack with the rest of the novel: Part of it feels like a bone thrown to Doctorow’s usual audience to keep them interested in the other stuff. The brute-force lectures may be fun to read, but do they mean anything in the context of the novel?

The “other stuff”, as it happens, is hit-and-miss. Doctorow’s basic ability to write readable prose remains unchanged, but even clear writing can’t mitigate the growing sentiment of exasperation as the story spends too much time in its own back-story, and not enough in advancing the plot. Once that is finished, however, things become a little bit more interesting, and the last third of the book is somewhat more user-friendly than the rest.

On the other hand, the ending crashes down like an after-thought. Stuff happens, fulfilling the basic requirements of “an ending”, but elements of the conclusion end up raising thornier issues than they resolve. A very important plot thread is displaced, and then flees without further news. The protagonist retreats, and that’s the end of that. The rest just goes up in flame. That may be an ending of sorts, but that’s not a conclusion. It certainly leave the reader with an unfulfilled yearning: this is a weird story, yes, but what is the point of it?

Part of the problem is that Someone is at least twice the size of Doctorow’s previous novels. Those extra words don’t necessarily add up to extra depth. There doesn’t seem to be any interaction between the subplots, no deeper meaning to the metaphors and not much of a metaphorical value to the fantasy elements.

I had too much fun reading the book to call it a failure. But it’s certainly Doctorow’s weakest novel yet, and taken with the deficiencies of Doctorow’s first two novels, it suggests a number of things to fix if his next novels are to improve. It’s not simply because Someone dares to be unusual that it’s any better. At this point, his best work remains Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which also had a pleasantly high quotient of weirdness.

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