It's official: Cory Doctorow has become the new Neal Stephenson. Or, rather, he's become the new early-period Neal Stephenson, since Stephenson himself has moved away from quirky, computer tech-y, zippy future-kitsch. Doctorow began filling the resulting gap with his first novels, Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom and Eastern Standard Tribe. But his latest, Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town, is his most Stephenson-like novel to date, all bizarre characters, cutting-edge culture, and technological lectures, swirled into a refreshing, compellingly grounded semi-fable.
The protagonist of Someone Comes To Town seems relatively ordinary, apart from the fact that he doesn't have a name. He's most often called Alan, though he answers to anything beginning with A, and appears even in the third-person narration as Adam, Alby, Andrew, etc. And then there's his inexplicably odd family, "uncatalogued and unclassified in human knowledge." His father was a mountain, his mother was a washing machine, and his brothers are, respectively, a precognitive, an island, a vicious zombie, and a set of three nesting dolls. It can all be read as metaphor—for instance, his parents as symbols of aloof machismo and blinkered domesticism, respectively. But Doctorow draws out the images in detail, making them as literal as possible. Alan doesn't have a navel, and Doctorow shows him growing up in a cave in his father's side, raised by golems and helping raise his brothers after they emerge, sudsy with detergent, from his mother's clothes-tub. They live off gold extracted from his father, and spend their childhoods trying to hide their differences from the "normal" people at school.
This history—centered particularly on how Alan's insane monster brother became dead and came back murderous—intercuts with a particularly Stephenson-esque discursion into open WiFi networks, as channeled through a friendly anarchist who's attempting to turn salvaged parts into city-wide free public Internet access. He and his band of homeless street-kid helpers pass for normal in Alan's life, and they provide a platform for tight, easily digested manifestos on the democracy of free communication. The book's extreme-weirdness pole and its real-world anarchy-tech pole don't always entirely align; at times, Someone Comes To Town reads like two stories in two styles, roughly whip-stitched together. But that's entirely appropriate for Alan's fragmented life, and for all his strangeness, he and his fellow oddities come across as achingly real. Doctorow's daring, uninhibited fiction isn't for everybody, though since Doctorow makes his novels available for free download from his website, craphound.com, tentative readers can test the waters first. They're likely to get sucked in, as his skewed take on the world is addictive and absorbing, even at its most unsettlingly strange.