Cory Doctorow, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. 2005. Tor Books. Pp. 320. ISBN 0765312786. $24.95.

Reviewed by Djibril

"Alan’s father was a mountain, and his mother was a washing machine—he kept a roof over their heads and she kept their clothes clean. His brothers were: a dead man, a trio of nesting dolls, a fortune teller, and an island."

We are given this nutshell description of the protagonist's family background only a few pages into this enchanting novel, and it is a while before it is fully explained—that is too say, it is never quite explained, but we do eventually learn beyond a doubt that this is not a metphorical description of a chauvinistic nuclear family but literal (if surreal) truth. The family live in cave on the mountain that is their father; the washing machine running on a diesel generator in one corner literally gave birth to Alan and his six brothers; his brother Billy knows the future; Craig is a mound of earth in their father's lake; Davey is a violent, psychopathic little monster, whom the other brothers killed, but has returned as a living corpse to terrorise their lives; Gerald lives inside Fred, who lives inside Ed. As if this were not confusing enough, none of the brothers have fixed names, although the first letter (A, B, C, D, etc.) is stable: the protagonist is alternately Alan, Adam, Andy, Avi, Adrian, Aaron; his second-eldest brother is Benny, Brent, Billy, Bentley...

This is an unusual book in many ways, but then Cory Doctorow is an unusual author, so we maybe should have expected that. Doctorow is a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), one of the founder editors of the weblog, and has released a version of this novel for free under a Creative Commons license. This interest in the freedom of information and digital rights generally leaves a strong influence on the content of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, one of the main plotlines of which involves a scheme to set up a free, anarchic, anonymous, open wireless network across the whole of Toronto, with routers built from trash and rescued computer parts. This leaves room for debates and expositions on the subject of free speech and access to technology, descriptions of computers and boot-strapped junction boxes. This in many ways central story also serves as a backdrop for Adam's friendship with the info-anarchist Kurt; his relationship with Mimi, the mysterious winged girl next door, and her brutal, apparently all-seeing, Renfield-like boyfriend, Krishna; and his hunt for his missing, probably murdered, three youngest brothers.

Andy is an isolated character, inasmuch as he very rarely lets people close enough to him to learn his history, and the fact that he is not quite human. He has never been to a hospital (luckily he heals supernaturally fast, can grow back severed fingers, etc.), and avoids the police if possible; his ID is fake, stretching back to his first stolen library card. Despite this he is fascinated by people, spends his time observing them and trying to be as helpful as possible: he is a serial entrepreneur—has been a bookseller, antique dealer, and now wireless network distributor—whose aim is as much to train his assistants to run their own businesses as it is to turn a profit. He is the only one of his brothers to have successfully left the cave and joined human society, and he is never quite sure if this was the right thing to do. The undead Davey is never far behind him, watching, taunting, ready to torment and mutilate anything or anyone he loves.

In the end, despite its surreal background and unpredictable storylines, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is a highly readable novel with engaging characters whom you care about, truly frightening villains, and tension that builds to a mounting climax that makes the last fifty pages or so almost totally un-put-downable. An excellent achievement: I can only hope that Doctorow is proved correct in his gamble to release free versions of the novel. If obscurity is a greater enemy to the writer than piracy, then this title deserves to be widely read and widely pirated (although some of us who can afford to should also pay for a copy, to be fair).

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