Older does not necessarily mean wiser, not for Marcus Yallow, hero of Cory Doctorow’s bestselling and award winning novel, ‘Little Brother’. The sequel, ‘Homeland’, is set a couple of years later and opens with Marcus and his girlfriend, Ange, living it up at the Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. There, in the middle of nowhere, Marcus’ demons come to haunt him.
First is Masha, who used to be on the wrong side, but might now be on the right side. She hands Marcus her insurance policy: a USB drive with access to dirty documents she’s been collecting about the dirty dealings of private enterprise, government departments and a certain former employee. She urges him to publicise the documents should she disappear. Enter Marcus’ worst nightmare, the woman who oversaw his capture and torture in ‘Little Brother’, Carrie Johnstone. She’s at Burning Man, too and she’s not there to celebrate what seems to be the largest gathering of unplugged nerds in history.
Masha is kidnapped and Marcus is injured in the explosion triggered to cover the retreat. He returns to San Francisco with a broken nose, the USB and a job offer. The broken nose is annoying, but Masha’s insurance policy and his new job – webmaster for a charismatic political candidate – are at direct odds. To do one justice, he has to all but fail at the other. Having a job is a Big Deal; he’s been out of work for the better part of a year and, as a result of his shenanigans in ‘Little Brother’, his parents’ careers have hit the skids. But, this is Marcus. He’s a nineteen year-old guy, he’s smart and curious. He downloads the treasure trove of data accessed by the key on the USB. It’s incendiary stuff.
The gang gets back together to process the data. Before they can officially decide what to do with it, however, some of it is leaked. Marcus falls into another nightmare that feels like a paranoid delusion until his laptop starts talking back to him.
From there, the novel follows a similar path to its predecessor. Marcus is roughed up, there’s a riot and government types do Bad Things. Marcus’ voice is engaging, though, and the reader gains a good sense of a young man who is trying to grow up on his terms…and realises he can’t. Like so much of his life, even this process is going to be dictated to him, for him, and until he locks step with events, his yelling and flailing will continue to sound like the obstreperous tantrum of a boy. Marcus faces a decision greater than protecting himself, those he loves, or even compromising his job. Can he do what’s right?
I can’t say the message of ‘Homeland’ is particularly new, not so many years after ‘Little Brother’, but it’s still relevant and there is a definite sense the author practices what he preaches. Security and freedom of ourselves, our lives and our data are important issues and while Cory Doctorow has a definite opinion, he never veers into the territory of telling the reader: You Are Wrong – which is greatly appreciated.
Cory Doctorow writes for a young adult audience, but the novel is just as enjoyable for an adult. The in-depth explanations of technology and how it works could be condescending. They never are. It’s interesting stuff that inspires more than one bout of ‘net research. A bibliography in the back of the book helps with that. There are also two afterwords, one by Jacob Applebaum of WikiLeaks and the other by Aaron Schwartz, co-founder of Reddit, also described as an internet activist. Sadly, Aaron Schwartz is no longer with us. His message in the back of this book is worth reading, however. I found it more accessible than the one written by Applebaum.
All in all, there’s stuff to think about wrapped in a neat little adventure. If Marcus’ story is to continue and I suspect it will – Carrie Johnstone is still out there – I’d like to see a different approach. A different book. Given Marcus gains some much needed maturity by the end of ‘Homeland’, I think I will.
Note: ‘Little Brother’ is still available for free download at: http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download/
Another note: I read the free version in 2009 and liked it so much I went out and bought two copies, one for the shelf and one to give away. I’d say that’s a successful model of online publishing.
(pub: TOR Teen. 400 page hardback. Price: $10.98 (US), £ 9.47 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-76533-369-8)