Thursday, December 15, 2005

There are only two stories

People are strange when you're a stranger. I'll stop with the reference there but it, to my mind encapsulates, the essential truth about Cory Doctorow's latest, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.

It is perhaps his strangest, yet most true, novel to date.

When Alan comes to town, he decides to renovate his home and kit the place out in shelving (a man after my heart here) for his books. He meets the neighbours, a house of students, dropouts and the displaced, and begins to make friends with them. Well almost. Alan is a true geek - whilst looking for something to do with his time, he gets involved with Kurt's plan to blanket Toronto in free broadband, starting with the market. Kurt, an anarchist with a heart, goes dumpster diving and constructs kit out of what he finds tossed away and sells any kit he cannot use on eBay with a network of runners to help him.

Perhaps we find here a sort of cyberpunk 2.0. In the same way that Web 2.0 is being vaunted as the new way of enhancing/developing an existing technology, making it a Rich User experience, Doctorow (and I need to finish the book but I suspect also David Marusek) is taking the base of cyberpunk and sf and reimagining it as a place where readers gain a Rich Reading Experience as the plot lines and mcguffins seem eerily familiar. Sf doesn't have to project itself into the future to carve out its own niche; all it needs is the confidence to get on with telling the story. After reading Stephenson's Baroque Cycle and his spelunking (to paraphrase Clute) through the workings of the Network Society, Alan and Kurt's networks are lighthearted practical demonstrations of the phenomenon at work. Cyberpunk tended to be the interface of science and technology and how they afftect each other in terms of use and abuse and Docotorow does this with aplomb running backwards and forwards with ideas that are just in the corner of the eye. part of this comes from the fact that he is more aware of the technologies than Gibson claims he was at the time of Neuromancer (I only have the introduction to the twentieth anniversary edition to base this on though).

Yet what really makes this novel stand out for me is Alan's relationship with the Mimi, the Winged Lady. This screamed Fevvers from Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, to me and really brought out the essential wierdness of human relationships. Under all the clothes and what not we all have our own personal hang-ups and strangeness, though perhaps with out the avian architecture on our backs. It would be a huge misreading to see her as a fallen angel. She isn't but, as with Fevvers, she is a hyperreal character who reminds Alan of his own wierd background and he in turn helps her to accept herself. In its own magically real way, this relationship brings out the human side to Cory's novels which I've felt was slightly lacking. It is always there but they get swamped by the barrage of ideas. Even Alan and Kurt are familiar to us in their entrepreneurial escapades and their very human successes and failures.

I can see why the book has divided some readers into loving or loathing it (or just being plain mystified by it). In its wierdness (and wiredness), it is a fine relationship novel. Its not what you expect from him and this is a Good Thing. People (and times are strange ), just deal with it.


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