Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Homeland by Cory Doctorow

Lowdown: A young hacker is in trouble after being given a treasure trove of private/government corruption stories.
Homeland is the latest YA novel from Cory Doctorow, following very closely on the footsteps of its three predecessors: Little Brother, For the Win, and Pirate Cinema. All the trademarks are there, with the same plot structure, educational interludes and first person accounts that Doctorow's readers should be familiar with to one extent or another. Indeed, Homeland is a direct sequel to Little Brother; it could have been a direct sequel to Pirate Cinema just as well.
So yes, we are reunited with Little Brother's Marcus. Following a rather tedious start where Marcus takes part at a desert Burning Man event, we (through Marcus' eyes) stumble upon his old mate/nemesis Masha. Masha leaves Marcus with a USB stick containing a hell of a lot of secrets that would put the American government as well as lots of private companies to shame were they to be exposed Wikileaks style. She asks him to publish the secrets if he was to learn that something happens to her. Guess what happens next? Marcus witnesses Masha being led off, prisoner like, by the same woman that had him water-boarded in the name of homeland security back in Little Brother.
What follows next and for the rest of the book is the tale of the dilemma inflicting Marcus regarding the publication of the secrets as well as what happens to our Bradley Manning once the secrets filter out, one way or another. We learn of terrible abuses of the democratic and capitalistic system we know and cherish as the core of our Western civilization, all done with the aid of the best of current technology. We also learn, through Marcus' own mouth, about various ways to countermeasure whatever "they" throw at you: from 3D printing through open source operating systems to encryption tools openly available to everyone. Ultimately, we read of the struggle of the simple person against a system that is growing more and more twisted in its abuse of individuals' rights.
Like Doctorow's other YA novels, Homeland is a book that takes a lot of things that already happened (e.g., Wikileaks, the Occupy movement, police brutality, government tracking of individuals, banks' abuse of mortgages) and combines it into a single narrative that is so dreadfully scary by virtue of the fact it can happen tomorrow. Because, to one extent or another, it already happened. As such, Doctorow signs another compelling book with which to motivate the general public to take the initiative to act and sort the world around them.
Is that it, then? Am I as impressed with Doctorow the way I was with his previous efforts in this genre? The answer there is a definitive NO. Sure, if Homeland is going to be your first Doctorow, it's a hell of a book that I would highly recommend. However, if like me you arrived at Homeland having read the other books, you would probably suffer from fatigue. You may be annoyed, like me, at the way Doctorow takes the long way around the things he particularly likes. That is, expect to read a lot about the Burning Man and cold brewed coffee, even if these are not directly related to the plot at hand. You may be a trifle annoyed with the songs of praise Doctorow bestows on the EFF, too. Now, there is nothing wrong with the EFF (I'm a passionate member myself); it's just that the way Homeland plugs it is much less subtle than a half hour long commercial break in the middle of a less than an hour long episode of Downton Abbey. Then I was even more annoyed by repetitions from previous books, such as the girlfriend breakup or the friendly politician, both reeking of Pirate Cinema stench.
In other words, there is too much of Doctorow in Homeland rather than Homeland itself. While in general that is not a problem, I am arguing it is a problem when Doctorow does it the fourth time around. Come on, Doctorow, I know all about cold brewing from Boing Boing already; no need to press the point further.
Overall: I hope Doctorow could forgive me for this review. Again, I think Homeland is a really good book; but in the context of Doctorow's published work, it does not renew enough while it focuses too much on Doctorow's fetishes. I highly recommend Homeland, but personally I cannot give it more than 3 out of 5 stars.

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