id’s #CBR5 review #3: Homeland by Cory Doctorow

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I’m a tremendous fan of Cory’s first book in this universe, Little Brother – in fact I think my friends, co-workers, and random passers by are probably sick of me pushing the book at them when they ask a question about technology and freedom. I’ve been waiting months for the announced sequel to be published. Frustratingly, Cory announced several weeks ago that his publisher (Tor) decided not to release an audio version of Homeland, and since Cory refuses to publish anything with Digital Rights Management (DRM), sales via Audible were out of the question. For a guy who now ‘reads’ almost exclusively while driving hours from remote site to remote site for his job, I’m screwed. So it’s with some luck I got sick this weekend – I got to actually break down and read the entire book in a Sunday in bed.

Homeland picks up a couple years after Little Brother breaks off, and Marcus Yallow (M1k3y) is trying to move on from his previous life after the Department of Homeland Security picked him up after a terrorist attack, and unwittingly made him their worst enemy. He’s trying very hard to find a job since the global downturn, something his resume (“Engineered the removal of DHS from state of California”) doesn’t help with, and the rest of his family is out of work as well. During a Burning Man festival, a former DHS operative and antagonist (Masha) approaches Marcus and gives him the key to her ‘insurance file’, a bundle of secret documents that will embarrass and scandalize governments at all levels. Of course, Masha is swiftly captured, and Cory’s 2nd tale of American freedom and technology takes off, as Marcus has to figure out how to publish the insurance files without being arrested or black bagged himself.

The real value of Doctorow’s writing has always been his integration of the issues he thinks about with plot. Marcus has obviously gotten older, more mature, and more certain that he doesn’t know everything, and there are definitely people whom are smarter than he is. While the chain of events may strain credibility, the characters never do. But he (Doctrow & Marcus both) does know he can educate people and get them interested into subjects that frequently turn people into the drooling messes that we commonly associate with watching talking heads engaged in federal budget discussions. He gleefully goes there, absolutely convinced that his audience is there for the didactic discussions around privacy, government observation, cybersecurity, fraud, abuse, and even some do-it-yourself maker projects. After reading books like Cinder that walk up and invoke such powerful discussions like slavery and the definition of being human, and then drop them with only the judgement that Racism is Bad, Doctorow’s endless enthusiasm for the new cyber world and its issues is like enjoyably getting hit with a firehose. (Yeah, I went there. ‘Torrent’, considering the subject matter, is too overused. Email your complaints to idiosynchronic at Gmail. Then piss off.)

In a bittersweet afterword, Aaron Swartz states that;

Now I hope you had fun staying up all night reading about these things, but
this next part is important, so pay attention: what's going on now isn't some
reality TV show you can just sit at home and watch. This is your life, this is
your country -- and if you want to keep it safe, you need to get involved.

In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious that Marcus was based in part or whole on Aaron, and Doctrow asking the question, ‘What would happen if an incredibly talented but normal young man lived through a terrorist attack and refused to surrender his rights?’

Something I’ve noticed in Doctorow’s previous book, Pirate Cinema & which returns in Homeland, is a very painful wistfulness that at the end of your teen years you begin to see your friends and even loves go away into separate lives and careers, sometimes driven by circumstance, sometimes by disagreement. I think I’ve haven’t seen a more coherent explanation of this part of life in most books marketed (no matter how the young adult classification chafes) to teens and twenty-somethings. I don’t know what all has been going on in Cory Doctorow’s life, but I hope it hasn’t left too many livid scars. The good news is that they sometimes return – my wife and I never dated when we were teens, and we’re now married after meeting again. The real tragedy is when circumstances like Aaron’s will never provide the opportunity.

You can download Homeland at Cory’s website in a number of formats including PDF, HTML and a few other formats I don’t remember and don’t care to look up – all without DRM. Then if you love the books as much as I do, make sure you buy a physical copy from your local bookseller.

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