I have just put my copy of Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town on my bookshelf. I am reminded of the main character, a middle-aged ex-retailer called Alan, who is asked during the course of the book, “Have you read all these books on your bookcase?” He replies, “Naw. What’s the point of a bunch of books you’ve already read?” I could not find this information in the hard copy of the book itself, because I made no notes, but it was easy to download the plain text of the book from Doctorow’s website. You see, his novels are available for free online. It doesn’t seem to hurt sales. In my case, I read the first chapter on his website, pootled on over to Amazon, bought that sucker before I’d taken a second drag on my tea.
The story begins with a middle-aged man called Alan refurbishing his house in a trendy district of Toronto. He loves sanding, and so he should: his father was a mountain. His mother was a washing machine. That’s right. His father kept the roof over their heads and his mother kept their clothes clean. There’s more. Alan’s younger brother, Bradley, is psychic. Charlie is an island. Davie is dead, and wants revenge on those who killed him. Edward, Frederick and George are triplets; they fit inside one another like a Russian doll. There is a dark pool at the centre of father-the-mountain where its great slow thoughts can be heard above the put-put of the diesel generator powering mom.
Once Alan’s house is finished, he attempts to integrate with the community, starting with his immediate neighbours. Some of them are friendly. Others treat him with contempt. One, Krishna, recognises that Alan is not precisely human. Krishna sets out to make life hard for Alan by aligning with the dead brother, Davie, who demands revenge his murderers, starting with Alan. While the enemies are tough, the friends are true friends: Mimi, for instance, is a young woman with nascent, downy wings on her back. They grow again each time she cuts them back. Like Alan, she looks on at society from an uneasy orbit.
As the novel unfolds, Alan’s efforts to integrate – mostly by erecting a huge wireless network with his punk friend Kurt – are hampered by the stalking Davie. At points, we are flung back to Alan’s early life on the mountain, and begin to appreciate the depth of his alienation from humanity. These flashbacks serve to heighten our desire to see Alan – a fundamentally good man, despite all he has done and had done to him – get connected along with his wireless project. There is something sad in Alan that reminds us of old science fiction stories in an automaton would mimic human behaviour and harbours dreams of integration into human society. The invitation never comes, of course. Sometimes it is better to leave town and start a society of your own. Doctorow’s novel wants to tell that you can’t escape your weirdness. If you were born in a washing machine under a mountain, then get used to it. If you have wings on your back, don’t cut them off. Spread them and fly.