Sunday, October 13, 2013

If you were in my movie: Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town

Warning, here be mild spoilers!

We first world narcissists sometimes see ourselves as protagonists in our own narrative. But what if all of this [waves hands to indicate your immediate surroundings, your street, your neighbourhood] was someone else's trip?

Someone comes to town, someone leaves town (available free on author Cory Doctorow's website here) is a haunting book and something of a departure from anything else I've read by Doctorow. 

It takes his usual tech-fetishising milieu, not a million miles away from Douglas Coupland and latter day William Gibson, and adds a dollop of magic realism to create something very strange indeed.

Alan, the lead character and a silver tongued silver fox of a businessman, moves into a bohemian Toronto neighbourhood to write. He falls in with his neighbours, gets involved in their problems as well as a scheme to cover the whole city in free wi-fi, while at the same time confronting approaching nemesis in the form of his symbolic nightmare of a family.

Which includes, for the record, a mummified psychopath, a precognitive, a set of nested Matrioshka doll triplets and a desert island.


Alan appears the outwardly well-adjusted member of his family - the only one to have escaped their backwoods home and to have made a success of himself among 'normal' humans. Yet over the course of the novel, the suspicion grows among the reader that he is the biggest monster of the brood, albeit a relatively benign one.

Indeed, Someone comes to town... achieves the rare feat - especially in SF and fantasy - of creating villains whose motives you can not only understand but even to some extent sympathise with. Doctorow achieves this by casting them as Van Helsings, some of them fratricidal. 

For Alan's power - not spelled out but with given with increasingly strong hints over the course of the book - is to bend reality to his will, to draw other people into his own narratives of business success, of community, even of love, in order to further his interests and ultimately to protect himself. 

Did he even cast his family in roles - killer, seer, symbiote - that they have become trapped in when he abandoned them? Do they need to kill him in order to be free?

Someone comes to town... therefore functions a sidelong comment on how the writer (in the broadest sense of the word) risks power-play, imposing roles and characterisation on their objects of their attention. We all do this to some extent, especially in the family, that crucible of character, but the truly fascinating and dangerous people are those who coerce you into accepting your role in their story, their definition of who you are.

Many political narratives - especially but not only the authoritarian ones - are at bottom about setting limits on definition. Think, to give but one contemporary example, of the struggle to narrow or broaden ideas of what is acceptably American behaviour?

But Someone... also shows how writing can articulate and create a voluntarily shared vision - Alexander Pope's 'what oft was felt but ne'er so well expressed', if you like. To take our example here from the novel, the free wi-fi project is someone else's vision, but Alan gives it a voice, acts as its midwife, inspires others to jump on board. 

Like a cloud of anomie you can't shake, the book has followed me over the weeks since I put it down. With Arthur Lee, it asks you if you like the part you're playing in your own life, and softly asks you whether you need to accept it. 

We have the freedom to choose our own narratives as well as the freedom to share the narratives offered by others, gaining strength and inspiration. We should both of them to their full potential. 

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