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Monday, August 03, 2009

Book Read: Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town

A friend of mine at an old job introduced me to Doctorow, chiefly Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom, which I thought was a fairly brainy transhumanistic tale>. Since then I've mostly grown accustomed to Doctorow's writings on Boing Boing, which sadly often show a lack of basic understanding about the things he loves to complain about, most notably DRM and copyright, even down to the completely absurd.

This review will contain some spoilers.

Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town is Doctorow's third book. There's a bit of all the above in this novel. Early in the book you are introduced to some unique fantasy elements, reminiscent of Gaiman in some ways - even in positive ways, and throughout the book there are several hints that a deeper mythology might be at work. The main character, Alan, is the son of a mountain and a washing machine. Alan responds to any name beginning with A, and his brothers likewise are named in alphabetical order and so will answer to Bart, Charlie, Darren, and so on.

At just about the time that this seems to have the structure for something interesting, Doctorow spends about a hundred pages talking about wi-fi and blanketing a large part of Kensington Market in Toronto with free access. This second topic completely murders the book. Not only is it relatively uninteresting, the fact that none of the seemingly technically proficient characters seem to understand the access points do in fact extend the range but do nothing to actually increase the amount of bandwidth available to said range - hence the promise of "free" Internet being in actuality the same problem facing many a municipal plan, is completely overlooked. It pretty much just translates into many pages talking about the Internet as free speech, the value of undervalued hardware, and a lot of wasting of the reader's time for an effort which is not only futile, but embarrassingly boring and inept.

Every section of the novel which is entertaining, about Alan's past and other magical beings such as himself, gets stabbed by anything related to the "ParasiteNet" subplot. Doctorow divides the book up oddly, so you'll get a little motion about Andy's schoolboy days - only to end up reading about recompiling a distribution for a computer made from dumpster parts.

Not only does it undercut the basic plot and premise, it makes several of the aspects feel silly and unrealistic. That Andrew will respond to any male name beginning with "A" leaves people with questions, Doctorow not only decides not to risk offering any explanation - but all of Andy's dumpster diving net nuts gladly alternate his name without any indication that it might be slightly odd.

It's as if the depth and potential of the fantasy elements were too overwhelming for the book, and instead you get a lot of crap about public Internet access. Ultimately, the story about Andy's family feels shallow, unresolved and disorderly. There's actually a twist in the end, which is allowed so little time to breath or room for discourse that you might just blink and miss it.

The wikipedia listing for this book notes its literary significance as being "anti-cyberpunk", for lacking any virtual reality or high tech goods. Honestly, I'd love to know who added that to the listing - as a search for the phrase comes up with only self-referential connections. It's like the guy who tries to give himself a nickname.

The book is, thanks to Doctorow's love for the Creative Commons, freely available online - so you can check it yourself. I'd say that's about the right price. I've enjoyed most everything else I've read of his about ten times more than this one.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

It's sad, because it's the only one I remember fondly. And I agree with everything you've said.

Doctorow's early books had some good ideas, but left me cold, particularly with his weird Disneyworld obsession. Someone Comes to Town seemed like a decent urban fantasy with a polemic about Internet freedom bolted on. Little Brother bored me. And his new one, which they're serializing on, reads like a bad Bruce Sterling ripoff--with Disneyworld leaking back in.

It may be the pot calling the kettle black, but maybe he's just too much of a nerd to write effectively any more.