I’d never read anything by Cory Doctorow other than BoingBoing.net, dentist and when I found that some of his stuff was available through DailyLit, misbirth I thought it was about time to remedy that. Of course, dosage I immediately picked a book that wasn’t available via bite-sized emails, but considering that he’s got all his works on Project Gutenberg, that was okay. For those who don’t know, Doctorow is an award-winning novelist and an activist for internet and anti-DRM related things. If you read one of his books on Project Gutenberg, you’ll also be treated to a brief essay on why he does what he does. It’s actually quite interesting and includes such lines as, “The worst technology idea since the electrified nipple-clamp is ‘Digital Rights Management,’ a suite of voodoo products that are supposed to control what you do with information after you lawfully acquire it.” (Well, I thought it was funny.)
This book, apparently his third novel, is centered on Alan (or Andy, or Antoine), an individual with quite an interesting personal history. His father is a mountain and his mother, a washing machine. I’m not kidding. He has several brothers, including an island and three who nest like Russian dolls. In any case, he moves to the Toronto area when he is in his early thirties, and renovates a house. His neighbors are a little weirded out by him, especially Mimi, who has secrets of her own. Before long, Alan becomes involved with a project that a punk-anarchist named Kurt has started: free internet for everyone. He builds little repeater stations out of junk that he dumpster-dives for and sets them up in various locations, in order to expand free speech. What he finds in the dumpsters that he can’t use, he sells on eBay in order to buy the things he can’t scavenge. Alan finds this intriguing and gets involved as a more polished facade for Kurt’s business.
Unfortunately, all this while, one of Alan’s brothers, the one he thought was gone, has come back and is now stalking Alan and the other brothers. So he and the careful way of life he has carved out for himself, as well as his friends and neighbors, are all in danger.
In some ways, this book is a lot like Neil Gaiman, specifically American Gods. Some of the ideas are the same; some of the poetry of language is the same; the level of gross is about the same, or maybe a tad worse. In other ways, though, this is science fiction where Gaiman is fantasy. Technology is important; perhaps not to Alan’s brother so much, but to the entire rest of the plot. Through Kurt, Doctorow discusses his ideas of free speech, free internet, the generation gaps in technology, and other such topics. Even Alan’s mother, the washing machine, is technological; contrast this with Charlie in Anansi Boys, whose father is a god, a magical being.
In any case, I enjoyed it quite a bit. The more human characters are interesting, especially Kurt and Mimi. Even Alan, while a bit unhuman, still acts and reacts within his own character. The narrative jumps back and forth between the present and various times in Alan’s personal history; there’s a section where Alan is writing a story in his head and it becomes interspersed with the current events. It isn’t confusing, though – it flows very well. I don’t know if part of that is because I read an unpaginated version (html) or just because it’s generally well integrated.
This is not a book for children. Unlike other books, I’m not saying that because there are concepts that children can’t understand – I’m saying that because of the level of violence and gruesomeness. All events are, of course, integral to the plot; it doesn’t seem to be gratuitous. However, they’re there, they’re necessary, and they’re not exactly what I would consider kid-friendly. I’d recommend it to later YA-aged people and older, especially fans of Neil Gaiman with a bit more of a technological bent. 4.5/5 stars.