Homeland, Cory Doctorow‘s sequel to Little Brother, revisits San Francisco several years after the Bay Bridge is destroyed in the worst terrorist attack on U.S. Soil. Marcus Yallow and his girlfriend, Ange, are still together, making technology with scrap parts and a bit of ingenuity. But when Marcus is given a USB stick with secret files on the Department of Homeland Security, files that prove the DHS’s continual violation of civilian rights, will Marcus have the courage to face his fears and do what’s right?
The novel starts off at Burning Man, where Marcus and Ange have gone on vacation to escape the pressures of life in post-attack San Francisco. The setting is fun enough, with the author’s love of all things tech and counter-culture abundantly clear, until things turn sinister. The freedom and care-free atmosphere of Burning Man contrasts sharply with the events of the novel as Marcus’s circumstances change.
Upon returning home from vacation, we learn how badly the city has fared in the years since the Bay Bridge attack and the Department of Homeland Security’s ousting from San Francisco. The economy is horrible, and the Yallow’s have been hit hard. His father lost his job, which means Marcus can no longer afford to go to college. His mother takes jobs as she can, but his parents are worried about money and possibly losing their home. For Marcus, the future is uncertain, especially now that he’s been given evidence against the DHS which could make him a target once again. If he makes the files public, will he live long enough to have a future?
However, he stumbles into a job as webmaster for a local independent candidate, a man he admires and hopes will work to make the city and country free once more. But doing his job and leaking documents that prove government corruption at the same time may prove incompatible, especially combined with his own terror at the thought of facing his tormentor, the woman who waterboarded him years earlier on behalf of the DHS, Carry Johnstone.
This novel stands well on its own, despite the fact that I initially thought the plot wasn’t as strange. Events parallel things that happened in the previous novel; characters and themes are revisited. However, since Marcus has changed, the outcomes of each encounter changed as well. He’s not as fearless, in fact he spends the majority of the novel terrified and cautious. He needs to come to terms with his trauma and face his fears to overcome his oppressors. Things are no longer black and white to him, because each step he takes could endanger his friends and colleagues.
The only problem I had with the novel was that Ange, Marcus’s girlfriend, reacts skeptically in several situations where I don’t believe she would be skeptical, given her background. She serves as a convenient foil to the ever fearful Marcus, who sees demons around every corner, but this seems out of character.
As in the previous novel, Little Brother, each chapter features a dedication to a bookstore that the author loves. He’s recycled many of these dedications, eliminating others that were no longer valid – like the dearly departed Borders bookstore. In keeping with the novel’s theme of free information, the book also features afterwords by Jacob Appelbaum of Wikileaks and Aaron Swartz of Demand Progress (co-founder, Reddit.com). The author provides links and references that kept me googling from sheer curiosity: he even provided a handy guide to getting the most out of Wikipedia.
More than anything else, Homeland is Marcus’s coming of age story, when the high schooler terrorized by the DHS years before learns to come to terms with a new reality, face his fears, and decide what the future will be – not for the country or the city of San Francisco but for his own life. Doctorow has created a great Young Adult story that covers not only the turmoil of a city but the inner struggles of a boy becoming a man. I highly recommend this book for adults and teens alike.