After getting off to what was already an impressive start, Cory Doctorow has finally delivered the book, the one that puts him over the top as one of the rare, demonically original, challenging and gifted writers SF sees about as often as two-headed calves are born. These ranks include the likes of PKD, Ballard and Delany, artists who manage to write mold-breaking, unconventional stories that uproot nearly every preconception about what storytelling ought to do, and yet avoid being alienating or vapid and self-indulgent. (Okay, so Dhalgren is self-indulgent.) Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is almost indecently brilliant. It feels like it shouldn't work, that you shouldn't get it, but it does and you do. It's one of the most heartfelt tales about Being Different that SF has offered in many a moon, without a hint of sentiment or contrivance. There are in fact some similarities to Robert Silverberg's Thorns.
The story is set in contemporary Toronto, and opens as an unusual man of middle age named Alan (or is it Adam, or Andrew, or...?) moves into a fixer-upper home and promptly begins ingratiating himself — rather forcefully — to his neighbors, two Gen Y couples next door. Alan's too-friendly demeanor raises the suspicions of one of them, the cocky and arrogant Krishna, but Alan befriends the others fairly smoothly, including Mimi, Krishna's girlfriend, who happens to sport a pair of vestigial wings on her back that she has to trim down regularly lest they grow too large.
But Mimi's secret is nothing compared to Alan's. Alan may or may not be human, but we are never sure. He comes from deep in the Canadian wilderness, hundreds of miles to the north, where his father is a mountain and his mother is an old, beat-up washing machine. Still with me?
Doctorow smacks you with this bizarritude so casually that, while you're still reeling from it all, he simply continues with his story until you are left with no choice but to accept what he's constructed if only to find out how things resolve. This is quintessential magical realist stuff, where the fantastic is so calmly interleaved with the everyday that it actually takes the reader a fairly small leap to acclimate to it. If Doctorow had done the hard SF thing of trying to explain convincingly how all this could be scientifically possible, the whole house of cards would come tumbling down.
Because what Someone Comes is all about is the desperation of the outsider who wants in, wants nothing more than to be normal, accepted, treated the same as anyone else. It could be a story set 50 years ago about an African-American, or even further back, about the Elephant Man. But it's a contemporary fantasy about a man who's human, and yet not; who has everything it takes to be human — the ambition, the love of life, the desire to excel and to benefit his community, the need for love and friendship, even the physical form — but will never quite get there.
Alan has, for years, done what he can in human society. He's been a successful retailer, and now simply wants to nestle within his newly restored home with its enormous collection of mostly unread books ("What's the point of books you've already read?" he asks pragmatically) and write a story of some kind. After he installs a server and wireless routers so that the entire neighborhood is suddenly blanketed with free wi-fi, he meets Kurt, a young, slackerish self-styled anarchist with ambitions to spread wi-fi throughout the city, using equipment salvaged from IT office dumpsters and refurbished. The two of them enter into what gradually grows into a fruitful partnership.
But dogging Alan is his secret past, particularly his many brothers. One, Brian, can see the future. Three of the others live one inside the other like Russian nesting dolls. And then there's psychotic Davey, possessed of an inexplicable and powerful rage that eventually led Alan to murder him in desparation. But death alone cannot stop Davey, and it looks like he's come back to wreak his revenge.
Their alienness is enhanced — with the same casual insouciance Doctorow used to establish them in the first place — by the fact that their names change around without warning. Alan will sometimes become Adam or Andrew, then back again. Davey might suddenly be Doug or Danny, then back again. Brian might be Brad or Brent. The other characters just as casually use these interchangeable names, not seeming to notice. It's all in the nature of reminding us how tenuous is the connection Alan and his brothers have — will always have — to the normal world, to which Alan, at least, wants nothing more than to belong. But Alan does have one connection to someone at least as mysterious as himself: Mimi and her wings, which, as she drifts further from Krishna to Alan, she begins to let grow out for the very first time.
So fresh and original, so warm in its treatment of its characters' hearts and minds, and so funny in its skewering of the wired culture is this novel that I couldn't tear my eyes away. When you read as many books as I do, you find that most are simply average, servicable stories that get the job done with commendable professional craft. But the ones that knock you for a loop, that ask you to look at the world through a glass weirdly, and rethink all of the preconceptions that have been drilled into you through a lifetime's exposure to convention, are increasingly rare and precious.
It is true that stories that are strange and experimental aren't necessarily better simply for being strange and experimental. Many times they're worse, as their authors simply aren't as envelope-pushing as they think they are, or they make the mistake of concentrating so hard on defying the norm at all costs that they fail to tell a compelling story with sympathetic characters within the context of what they're attempting.
Doctorow has just pulled it together, that's all. We find we don't care to know the wherefores and the how-do's of Alan's parentage, or of Mimi's part-avian biology, which she's gotten used to thinking of as a deformity. We just want them to learn to be happy, to accept themselves and each other, to escape what's hounding and haunting them and find someplace where they will at last fit in. (Davey can, of course, be interpreted as an externalization of the rage that outsiders always feel towards the societies that reject them.) And that ends up being the journey Doctorow's darkly magical story takes us on.
Cory Doctorow has made this book available, as he's done with all his books, as a free download under the Creative Commons Copyright from his website, and the "Author's Site" link will take you there.
Now to close with one, erm, philosophical difference I have with Doctorow, mentioned in the intro to the online version of this novel. In his touting of the wonderful world of e-publishing, Doctorow predicts that "some day... paper books will all but go away." Count me in on the front lines of fighting against that tooth and nail. Sure, electronic publishing has a place. I think it makes much better sense for something like, oh, the daily news. A newspaper will always be yesterday's news, while a news website will always be up to the minute and more useful. (But notice that people still buy their daily paper, if only for the crossword.) Also, I like the convenience of something like Wikipedia over owning, say, a forty-volume set of Britannicas that will be obsolete in a year or two anyway. Hell, my reviews couldn't exist other than electronically. If I had to resort to fanzine Xeroxing and snail-mail distribution to disseminate my book reviews, I wouldn't do it. Just not worth it. I remember what a hassle it was in the 80's.
And I understand why some people, for storage considerations, wouldn't want to own a massive personal library. But there your options are still plentiful. After reading a book, trade it to a used bookstore or donate it to a library, which would certainly love a new title that doesn't take a slice out of their already tiny budgets.
But for the pleasure of reading a fine novel, my personal choice will always be the "dead tree version." My hope is that the future continues to allow readers total freedom of choice, whether they prefer an e-book or a paper one. To me, a world in which paper books — wonderfully musty, dusty, paper books — have gone away would be a bleak, joyless wasteland of despair. It would be a town I'd be the first to leave.