Cory Doctorow’s Homeland begins at Burning Man and ends there as well. Everything that happens in between, however, should give every person who reads this book pause.
I’m not going to say I loved this book because I did not. It had, in my opinion, a number of flaws as a narrative, and I’m going to get to those. But despite my issues with it, I’m going to recommend it anyway. Because Doctorow has something important to say in this book about how close we are to a dystopian society—everything that happens in Homeland happens because it can happen and is happening now. All the technology exists, and the bad guys are out there. You’ll see what I mean after the next few paragraphs.
The story itself is a sequel to 2010’s Little Brother in that it involves some of the same characters, specifically Marcus Yallow and his girlfriend Ange, as well as his nemesis, Masha, and the very evil Carrie Johnstone. Marcus and his friends are all hackers, technogeeks, whatever you want to call them. They can do things with computers that will stand your hair on end. But they’re living in a society that is more and more oppressive: California’s economy has collapsed, Marcus’ parents are unemployed and barely hanging on to their house, he’s had to drop out of school because he can no longer afford the tuition and can’t find work, and his family is just one of most in the same boat. If all of that sounds familiar, it should. Hello 2008/2009.
Nevertheless, Marcus and Ange go to Burning Man, where they unexpectedly meet up with Masha, who is hoping to expose the corruption and illegality of the actions within the Department of Homeland Security. She’s on the run and knows she can’t avoid her adversaries forever, so she gives Marcus a thumb drive with hundreds of thousands of incriminating files on it, telling him that if she should suddenly vanish, he needs to publish what’s on that drive. Only hours later, Masha is snatched, and Marcus is left holding the bag—in this case, the information the snatchers want back from Masha.
What’s on the drive turns out to be flammable material indeed—proof that the government spies on ordinary citizens, that the student loan business is a racket designed to bleed people dry while enriching the lending companies and banks, that torture of American citizens is commonplace. Meanwhile, Marcus is tipped off about a job working for an Independent political candidate as a webmaster, and having secured it, he now lives in fear of losing his job. And he can’t publish Masha’s files because if they’re linked to him, it could not only cost him his job, but his candidate the election. And people seem to be following him. His computer is hacked and taken over, despite his precautions. He’s living in a ball of sleepless fear as he tries to find a way to keep his job while exposing just how corrupt and morally bankrupt the political system has become.
Marcus’ story is compelling reading because if you aren’t actually in his situation, you probably know someone who is. Or who is one serious illness away from bankruptcy. Or one pink slip from financial devastation. When you’re clinging to what’s left of your life with both hands as hard as you can, being forced into a position where you have to choose what is morally right and what is best for your own self-preservation is tough for anyone. And that’s the position Marcus is in. As a story, it is valid, but I have to wonder if these things would resonate with the teenage/young adult audience this book is aimed at; on the whole, I think people in that age bracket are politically aware, but I don’t know how much they think about these kinds of financial concerns. They’ll like all the hacker stuff, though, so maybe this will make them think about their family situations a bit more closely. I think what’s troubling me about all of this is just WHY the publisher is promoting this as a YA book (it’s being released under the Tor Teen imprint). Because the protagonists are older teenagers and young adults?
I could write an entire rant about books marketed as YA that really aren’t, and I might just get around to that later this week, but for now, let’s talk about what bugged me about that with this particular book: I think what Doctorow has to say here is important. And not just for people under 25, but for anyone who genuinely cares about the future of society. I wish I could say why I find it aggravating that a topic that the author clearly feels passionate about is being targeted to a more narrow audience. I won’t presume that either he or his publisher thinks the rest of the reading world doesn’t care, or isn’t hip enough, or whatever. But I do think that if you really do genuinely believe you have something valuable to say, you should want to say it to as wide an audience as possible. I read a lot of YA books—but a lot of “grown ups” never get that far in a bookstore. There’s an assumption here on someone’s part that has a kind of stinky odor to it that just bugs me.
Moving on before I really start ranting. I did find there were some narrative issues here for me. For starters, while Doctorow does a very fine job of filling in Marcus’ backstory right from the start (I have not read the award-winning Little Brother) and painting his dystopian San Francisco, he also assumes that his readers know what Burning Man is (I had to look it up. Apparently I’m not as cool as I think I am) and that they actually possess significant insights into how computers and smart phones work. Now I will grant you that the average teenager is more tech savvy than I am, but there are paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs of tech exposition here that made my eyes cross and really did nothing to move the plot forward. The first 100 pages are so larded with the stuff I nearly gave up, in fact. But if you’re looking for an instruction manual on how to build a paranoid partition on your computer, look no further. Of course, if you’re really interested, you could just Google it too.
It takes quite a while for Marcus’ story to really get going, between the lengthy descriptions of Burning Man and all the computer stuff; I personally think the first third of this book would have benefited from some judicious editing because it draaaaaags. Which, not a good thing for a thriller, you know? He does a really good job of capturing teenaged Marcus’ voice, but most of the other characters are not nearly as vividly portrayed (the exception to this is Joe Noss, the California State Senate candidate Marcus becomes webmaster for—Noss’ charisma is palpable and believable) and Carrie Johnstone remains nothing more than a shadow figure despite her crimes, which are thoroughly detailed, being the impetus for nearly all of Marcus’ actions. And while the point of this book is to demonstrate how powerless Marcus feels about his position and how the chaotic world he’s living in contributes to that feeling, there are times when Marcus’ philosophy of “when in trouble, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout” feels like it’s Doctorow’s narrative philosophy as well as he digresses into yet another discourse on technology or describes a pointless scene where Marcus discovers he’s playing Dungeons and Dragons with Wil Wheaton at Burning Man and has a major fanboy moment. These little side trips are such a distraction, and the Wil Wheaton scene, in particular, smacks of name-dropping. At other times though, such as the scenes when Marcus is attending various protests, that chaotic style is very effective.
I don’t mean this to sound as harsh as it does. I think young adults and older teens will absolutely lap this stuff up, in fact, and love every bit of it. Marcus has admirable, heroic, even romantic qualities that people in that age bracket especially will find appealing, but I think he might give all the older, less hip people hope for future generations as well. Adults who have the time and mental energy to think about things beyond how to put their next meal on the table and how to pay the bills will certainly be interested in what Doctorow has to say about what our world is turning into. And I think there are also a lot of adults who will see their own situations outlined in a very depressing manner.
Because the truth in the end is simple: this is one scary book. And the reason it’s so scary is that you’ve seen evidence that all of this happens: kids coming out of college drowning in debt that they can’t hope to pay off in their lifetimes, lines of police pepper-spraying peaceful protesters who are simply sitting down, not acting violently, stories of school districts using government-provided laptop webcams to spy on students, politicians receiving obscene amounts of money from a single donor in order to promote the donor’s agenda while in office. The Wikileaks scandal. All of that stuff is real–Doctorow invented nothing really new in this book in terms of what happens, he’s just invented the time line and the characters it’s all happening to. The relentless reminder of all of this stuff as it plays out in the story is like water dripping slowly on your forehead, though. By the time I was done with the book, I was completely paranoid. So I suppose he can count that as a success because I’m pretty sure that was his intention. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put a piece of duct tape over the web camera on my computer.
My copy of this book was graciously provided by the publisher for review and promotional purposes.