To prepare for Homeland, the sequel to Cory Doctorow’s wildly successful 2007 YA novel Little Brother, I decided to give that first book a quick re-read. Not for the first time, I was struck by how clever and awesome it is that Doctorow offers his novels as free downloads under a Creative Commons license because, even though I’m positive that I own at least two physical copies of the book, I couldn’t find them anywhere. (Hey, I just moved, give me a break. They’ll turn up.) So, I happily downloaded a copy and tore through it at more or less the same breakneck speed as I did back when it just came out.
Impressions: it’s still a great YA novel, if clearly a document of its time (but more about that later.) For a story that relies heavily on then-current(ish) technology, it hasn’t aged too badly, despite a few blips like “I checked the phone—my home PC had sent it an email.” Also, Little Brother obviously had a big impact on Doctorow’s career, given that (counting Homeland) he’s since written three more YA novels that are cut from a very similar mould, to wit: tech-savvy teenagers using information technology to fight injustice. On the cover of the previous one, Pirate Cinema (review), it was called his “newest novel of youthful techno-defiance,” and, well, yes—there’s clearly a bit of a formula at work here. Still, I’m not complaining: the books are fun, relevant and successful. At least for the moment, I’m not the only one who’ll keep reading them as long as he keeps writing them.
Homeland (excerpt) is unique among the batch, though, because it’s the first one that’s overtly connected to a previous work: it could have been subtitled “M1k3y Returns: More Adventures of Marcus Yallow and Friends.” The new novel picks up just a few years after the conclusion of Little Brother. Marcus is now 19, unemployed, and drowning in debt after dropping out from college. His parents, who have recently lost their jobs in the ongoing economic downturn, are just as broke as he is. Life is tough all around, but Marcus keeps busy sending out resumés and working in the local hackerspace.
The story begins during happier times, though: Marcus and his girlfriend Ange are at Burning Man. Even though Marcus’ contribution—a 3D printer that uses the desert’s gypsum sands as fuel—is malfunctioning, they’re taking it all in in and enjoying themselves… until someone Marcus never expected to meet again shows up and turns him into her personal dead man’s switch by giving him a thumbdrive full of incriminating government and corporate secrets. Still traumatized from what happened to him during Little Brother, Marcus finds himself shouldered with an immense and terrifying responsibility: should he release the documents to the public, or lay low to avoid the scrutiny of the government and its security contractors?
And so begins a story that reads remarkably like Little Brother, updated for the current U.S. economic and political reality. Where Little Brother was clearly a child of the George W. Bush era, dealing with the domestic fallout of the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, “enhanced interrogation” and so on,Homeland takes the same characters and fast-forwards them to roughly the beginning of this decade: the Great Recession, WikiLeaks, Anonymous, and an increasing level of disenchantment with the political process aimed at both sides of the proverbial aisle. Youthful techno-defiance during the first Obama term, basically.
Why is this relevant? Unless you’re new to Doctorow, you know that in many of his books fiction and politics go hand in hand. For better or worse, whether you like it or not, these books come with a message, and Doctorow will make 100% sure that you get that message and then some. It’s one of the main reasons why some readers don’t like his fiction; I’ve seen people say they may as well read his Boing Boing columns, which often deal with the exact same issues. To each their own: I’ve always enjoyed Doctorow’s novels, because they’re fast-paced, funny, and have interesting (if occasionally somewhat interchangeable) characters. Even if you happen to disagree with his opinions, at least they’re expressed clearly, intelligently, and out in the open rather than hidden in the subtext. (They’re about as far removed from hidden in the subtext as possible, actually.)
Come to think of it, at times Cory Doctorow reads somewhat like a more political Neal Stephenson, in terms of his willingness to take detours and side-bars in order to squeeze non-fictional material into his fiction. To be fair, not all of the (okay, I’ll say it) infodumps deal with the issues at hand:Homeland starts off with a guided tour of Burning Man that’s so detailed you’ll be able to draw a map of the event by the time you’re done, and there are a few times when Marcus gets going on the proper way to brew coffee in a way that’ll have the caffeine-addicts among us salivating (and taking notes).
It wouldn’t be too hard to put together one of those check-the-right-box magazine quizzes to see if you’d enjoy Cory Doctorow’s YA fiction. If you read Boing Boing and Slashdot regularly, add 10 points. If you’re politically liberal-leaning, add 5 points. Add 10 points each if you know how to jailbreak a mobile device, can list at least two 3D printer models without checking Google, or subscribe to MAKE. If you’re annoyed by infodumps, subtract 20 points. If you’re under the age of 18, add 5 points. And so on. The lower your score, the more likely these novels won’t be your cup of tea.
All this to say that (age aside) I’m firmly in the Cory Doctorow demographic. I’ve always enjoyed the pluckiness of his characters, the relentless pace of the plots, the way Doctorow is able to grasp the Zeitgeist by the scruff and extract a ripping good story from it. These books speed along as smoothly and rapidly as a bullet train. They’re both entertaining and empowering. While he’s otherwise as different from Pratchett as can be, he’s similar in that both authors disguise their social commentary as genre fiction and get away with it.
In the end, Homeland is nothing really new, but that’s okay: it’s simply another great YA read by Doctorow. There are a few surprising cameos (I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with a cameo, come to think of it) and an afterword that would have been fascinating a few months ago but has now become nothing short of heart-wrenching. If you liked Little Brother, For the Win and Pirate Cinema, you’ll probably enjoy Homeland—unless you’re starting to suffer from Youthful Techno-Defiance Fatigue, that is. Maybe the best way I can recommend this: if my five year old son was about ten years older, I’d be very happy if he was into these books.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on January 30th, 2013.