Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is a pleasant surprise. I thought I was buying a science fiction book (having read nothing about it beforehand), got something closer to a Stephen King novel, and enjoyed it.

The main character, Alan (or Andrew, or Aaron, Arnos... Only about half the cast have fixed given names) is the son of a mountain and a washing machine. And I don't mean a big guy and an overworked housewife. He's the offspring of a geographical formation and a household appliance with a fertile spin cycle. But, other than a missing belly button, he apparently looks normal enough to blend into a Toronto neighbourhood. The same can't be said of his brothers, three of whom are like a Russian doll, one inside the other. The smallest of this trio goes missing, a victim of possible foul play by an evil sibling, and the race is on to find and stop the villain.

Doctorow wields the ridiculous premise as well as Stephen King, like playing a game of chicken with the reader: How far can I go before you stop reading and swerve away? Doctorow has King's knack of keeping you reading with a quick-moving plot. I didn't find myself having to slog through any part of the book.

He's not quite as good at painting the characters. Preposterous stories need big ones. King fashions his with a sledge hammer and neon graffiti. Doctorow is a little too subtle. Three quarters of the way into the book, for example, a neighbour tells Alan/Adam/Andy that he's the weirdest person she's ever met. But the mountain/washing machine background is a secret she doesn't know. Why does she find him weird? His actions so far struck me as only mildly eccentric. Does he snort when he laughs? Keep his top button fastened in summer? Cut his hair with the help of a cereal bowl? Without a bit more colour, that line has to be taken on faith. That's a minor quibble, however. Other characters in the book -- the love interest with bat wings growing out of her back, the cyberpunk trying to turn Toronto into a wireless Internet Mecca and the evil mountain spawn -- are drawn more boldly.

It's the first book I've read by Doctorow, who I've encountered previously only through his blog posts championing fair use and opposing copy protection (digital rights management) . I agree strongly with his talk, and Doctorow walks the walk. The entire text of Someone Comes to Town can be read online, if you want. I suspect that helps sales of his books, not hurts as we've been brainwashed into believing.

I bought my copy, taking advantage of the author's offer to sign every book sold online through a local bookstore, and I'm looking forward to exploring his other books.

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