Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow: A Review
In Someone Leaves Town, Someone Comes to Town by Cory Doctorow we follow Alan, whose name changes (see below), around the city of Toronto helping his new friend Kurt install wireless Internet access points using equipment found in dumpsters, fall in love with Mimi a young woman with wings, and fight off an evil brother while trying to protect his other siblings. Since having spent some time in Toronto this year, I recognized a lot of the areas Doctorow describes, like Kensington Market, in which I spent a week at a hostel. I started reading the book while spending a week at my girlfriend's apartment downtown, which prompted me to post a long quote from the book about Toronto's smells. I even recognized, if distantly, Kapuskasing, one of my favourite Canadian place names, because my dad once had a conference there.
Of the main characters in the book, only the names of Mimi, Krishna and Kurt—the only three main characters who can be reasonably assumed to be human, Mimi's appendages aside, and there's even reasonable doubt that's her real name to begin with—stay the same. The names of the not-quite-humans (Alan and his five brothers) switch frequently, each character's name's first letter remains the same. While most of the time the protagonist, Alan, remains mostly Alan, he changes from Abel to Arthur to Albert to many others, all starting with A. Mimi's, Krishna's and Kurt's names never change. Kurt and Krishna are the closest to what we would consider human, neither having wings nor lacking navels nor being altogether evil, with Krishna being the only one that displays an ability for figuring out who is not-quite-human (Kurt never really catching on). Why have the not-so-humans' names change while humans' remain the same? Not clear: I've never seen this device used, but it at least forced me to pay attention to the narrative and not skim a paragraph as I sometimes do.
There are two scenes that stick out as memorable, neither having a lot to do with the plot, but which came across to me as refreshing and interesting, at least considering the source is Cory Doctorow, who some might have the impression of someone who automatically resists anything that a large corporation would want to support. This is particularly the case when Kurt and Alan meet executives and techs from Bell, one of Canada's largest telecom companies, which gets this soliloquy from one of the executives:
Think a second about the scale of a telco. Of this telco. The thousands of kilometers of wire in the ground. Switching stations. Skilled linesmen and cable-pullers. Coders. Switches. Backhaul. Peering arrangements. We've got it all. Ever get on a highway and hit a flat patch where you can't see anything to the horizon except the road and the telephone poles and the wires? Those are *our wires*. It's a lot of goodness, especially for a big, evil phone company.
So we've got a lot of smart hackers. A lot of cool toys. A gigantic budget. The biggest network any of us could ever hope to manage -- like a model train set the size of a city.
That said, we're hardly nimble. Moving a Bell is like shifting a battleship by tapping it on the nose with a toothpick. It can be done, but you can spend ten years doing it and still not be sure if you've made any progress. From the outside, it's easy to mistake 'slow' for 'evil.' It's easy to make that mistake from the inside, too.
But I don't let it get me down. It's *good* for a Bell to be slow and plodding, most of the time. You don't want to go home and discover that we've dispatched the progress-ninjas to upgrade all your phones with video screens and a hush mode that reads your thoughts. Most of our customers still can't figure out voice mail. Some of them can't figure out touch-tone dialing. So we're slow. Conservative. But we can do lots of killer R&D, we can roll out really hot upgrades on the back end, and we can provide this essential service to the world that underpins its ability to communicate. We're not just cool, we're essential.
So you come in and you show us your really swell and interesting meshing wireless data boxes, and I say, 'That is damned cool.' I think of ways that it could be part of a Bell's business plan in a couple decades' time.
Another memorable scene, near the end, has a reporter from NOW magazing coming over to interview Kurt and Alan about their wireless network, with the young reporter not buying the line that freer access to the Internet will lead to freer expression:
"You old people, you turn up your noses whenever someone ten years younger than you points out that cell phones are actually a pretty good way for people to communicate with each other -- even subversively. I wrote a term paper last year on this stuff: In Kenya, electoral scrutineers follow the ballot boxes from the polling place to the counting house and use their cell phones to sound the alarm when someone tries to screw with them. In the Philippines, twenty thousand people were mobilized in 15 minutes in front of the presidential palace when they tried to shut down the broadcast of the corruption hearings.
"And yet every time someone from my generation talks about how important phones are to democracy, there's always some old pecksniff primly telling us that our phones don't give us *real* democracy. It's so much bullshit."
He fell silent and they all stared at each other for a moment. Kurt's mouth hung open.
"I'm not old," he said finally.
"You're older than me," the kid said. His tone softened. "Look, I'm not trying to be cruel here, but you're generation-blind. The Internet is great, but it's not the last great thing we'll ever invent. My pops was a mainframe guy, he thought PCs were toys. You're a PC guy, so you think my phone is a toy. [...] I'm talking about practical, nonabstract, nontheoretical stuff over here. The real world. I can get a phone for *free*. I can talk to *everyone* with it. I can say *anything* I want. I can use it *anywhere*. Sure, the phone company is a giant conspiracy by The Man to keep us down. But can you really tell me with a straight face that because I can't invent the Web for my phone or make free long distance calls I'm being censored?"
The reporter is later mollified by a more nuanced argument, that it's not an either or proposition.
Aside from the above scenes, and the running theme of producing freely-available wireless Internet access, there does not seem to be any overt social commentary happening in Someone Leaves Home. The best science fiction I've read—not that the novel is heavy by any means on science or even futurism, but rather more so on fantasy elements—has political or social commentary as its basis for existence. This novel clearly aims to entertain, but of his three (I've read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Eastern Standard Tribe), this is the least entertaining. That's not to say it isn't entertaining, but that there's no interesting take on scarcity like in Down and Out and no IRC chatlogs for me to identify with like in EST.