I first encountered Cory Doctorow when I read his young adult novel, Little Brother. At the time I thought Boing Boing was the sound rubber balls made. In one of my first ever Amazon reviews I described Little Brother as ‘evocative and exciting’ and a ‘counter culture blockbuster’. For me it set the techno-thriller benchmark and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
On the back of that enjoyment I have read a couple of his follow up novels ‘Makers’ and ‘For the Win’. Whilst interesting, these are much patchier affairs. Doctorow has a tendency to let his depth of knowledge and passion for his subject overwhelm the story he’s trying to tell. This may be fine if you are an über geek, but if you just a common or garden variety like me, you can’t help but wish for a tougher edit.
This is the first Doctorow novel I’ve read since he switched publishers to Titan books. I have no idea if the switch has brought about greater editorial control, but Homeland is a worthy, compelling sequel to Little Brother. If you haven’t read LB yet, you really should start there. Whilst Homeland just about stands on its own, reading LB will give it much greater context.
“There’s something wrong with our world.”
“Somehow the ideals of friendliness, neighborliness, and justice have vanished.”
“To be replaced by a cult of greed, shortsightedness and whatever you can get away with.”
Homeland is set several years after LB. Life for Marcus has returned to some level of normality. He is still something of an Internet celebrity but he no longer attracts unwanted attention from US secret services. The world’s financial crisis is biting the San Francisco area hard. Marcus’s parents have lost their jobs, and he has had to give up going to college through lack of funds. He has diligently been searching for a job, without success.
The novel opens with Marcus trying to forget his woes at the Burning Man festival. A zero impact festival, something like a hi-tech Glastonbury in the middle of the desert. When two associates from his past turn up with a flash drive filled with incendiary data, Marcus feels himself being dragged back towards his old life. When he witnesses his Nemesis kidnapping his old friends, he is flung headlong back into the world of secrets, encryption and the occasional 3D printer. (Everything I know about 3D printing, I know from Doctorow. It’s clearly a favourite topic.)
The plot is slight and some of the arguments made are over-simplified, but that doesn’t really matter. What is important is the novel’s tone. This is a left leaning polemic about freedom of information, the abuse of anti-terrorism laws and corporate greed. It’s a book that can be distilled into any number of aphorisms, but it’s overriding message could well be ‘Tech don’t kill people, humans do,’ all the while asking that vital question, ‘Who watches the Watchman’. (The are a number of similarities between the themes in this book and the recently published The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar. The books are nothing alike but have a thematic harmony).
There is a lot made of the fallibility of the political system, much of which is entirely justified. It seems a fact of life that an idealist with an agenda for change will wind up a conformist, focused on defending their position. ‘It’s complicated’ runs the excuse. Marcus and Doctorow suggest that perhaps it isn’t.
Whilst never being quite as eye-opening as Little Brother, Doctorow once again reveals the frightening capabilities of modern technology to track every mote of our existence. He explains complicated constructs in a simple fashion, mostly refraining from bombarding us with detail. Once again Doctorow has provided a clarion call for the disaffected and technologically savvy youth. The geek may inherit, but what they do with it is entirely up to them. For a man entering his fifth decade, this idea is slightly worrying, but with ethically and socially conscious writers like Doctorow providing guidance there is hope for us all. Maybe.
I ran a Thoughtstream for my read of Homeland. I’m not sure it’s interesting, but it’s there all the same!