Little Brother was one of my absolute favourite novels of 2008. Written by a Torontonian cum Londoner, the author nevertheless managed a San Franciscan flavour close enough to convince me. But Cory Doctorow lives in the United States of the Internet, so what does geography matter?
That first novel was a nod to Orwell, filtered through the sensibilities of a Gen-Xer, steeped in the soul-crushing politics of the Bush administration. As with that presidential administration, the story begins with a major terrorist attack, however it’s not defined by that event but rather by what happens next. The bogeymen of this novel? The Department of Homeland Security, dirty cops, soulless bureaucrats, every evil government cliché, but well-supported, unfortunately, by years of news headlines and the travails of real people persecuted by their democratically elected government.
Doctorow’s tale of liberal teachers losing their jobs for not being patriotic enough, teenagers being kidnapped and tortured (waterboarded, to be more specific, and yes, the harrowing descriptions are quite specific), extreme surveillance of every possible variety becoming the new normal — it probably doesn’t sound very optimistic, but it was certainly on target. The exact year is deliberately vague — the story might have been two years in the future or twenty — but this is exactly the sort of societal extrapolation science fiction writers are supposed to make their living at, if only in the popular imagination.
Now we have Homeland, published in 2013, and what’s changed in America? The political left became briefly hopeful as a Democrat took the White House, although the policy shift was less dramatic than hoped. Five more years of climate change have taken their toll, but in the public consciousness, this has taken a back seat to the subprime mortgage crisis, subsequent bailouts and Great Recession (don’t say Depression). Then there was the Occupy movement. The Arab Spring. Deep Horizon. Fukushima. WikiLeaks. Uh, Angry Birds?
The main difficulty in writing near-future SF during turbulent times is the danger of quickly becoming dated. The first Terminator movie was set in our world, but by the time the third and fourth movies were out, it was officially a parallel universe. Computers are going to become self-aware and unleash a nuclear holocaust in 1997? Sure, that seemed reasonable in 1984. (You know what actually happened in 1997? Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in a six-game chess match. A little anti-climactic, isn’t it?)
So, Doctorow writes a near-future sequel to a near-future novel that was actually about right now. And this sequel, set maybe a year or two after the events of the first novel but written in a real world five years removed, is also about right now, although, really the political environment of right now would, logically, have to precede the events of the first book. So, which takes priority? The internal logic and continuity of the books, or the topical nature of its themes and subject matter?
I’ll be damned if Doctorow doesn’t manage to have his cake and eat it, too.
In Homeland, our hero Marcus Yallow is still dealing with the psychological after-effects of his illegal detainment by DHS, the subsequent persecution, and the infamy that comes with leading a (non-violent) uprising against a corrupt government. This is a recipe for PTSD, but by and large, he copes.
The residual effects of these experiences aren’t only psychological, however. His problems with the government have led, indirectly, to his own parents’ unemployment, forcing Marcus, in turn, to drop out of college. By the time of the novel’s opening chapters, he’s spent months seeking out any kind of work, without luck. This is the future, as seen from the vantage point of 2013, and yeah, I buy it.
Marcus is still the scrappy teenage hero, taking on the world, in practically the most literal way imaginable. Yet it’s hard to imagine how he can succeed. In some ways the stakes were higher in Little Brother, yet in other ways, the outlook seems much bleaker in this follow-up. The “slow slide into bankruptcy” Doctorow describes, the fruitless job search, the alienation from his friends — all these are less tangible and obviously soluble threats than a simple government kidnapping.
Oppressive as all this is, however, it’s really just background. The main conflict of the book involves a treasure trove of leaked government documents, north of 800,000 electronic files, which falls into Marcus’ hands. The docs, proving everything from systematic debt peonage on the part of Big Banking to human rights violations and military corruption overseas, demands action. But it’s also an albatross around his neck. He didn’t ask to be pulled into this again, and the task seems too great.
The whole story would probably be overwhelmingly depressing and hopeless were it not for Doctorow’s fundamentally optimistic outlook. The world has a lot of problems. But we can find solutions. To that end, the first-person narrative is interspersed with frequent (and largely delightful) asides about everything from electronic security and counter-surveillance to tabletop gaming and superior coffee-brewing techniques.
As surely as Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or, yes, George Orwell’s 1984, this is fundamentally a political book. And the political viewpoint being espoused? Do something. Doctorow’s hacktivist leanings permeate almost all of his fiction, but perhaps none moreso than the two books (and one novella) in this series.
This is a man who practices what he preaches. I snagged the mp3s for the audiobook version of this novel (expertly read by Wil Wheaton), somewhere conspicuously other than from the leading purveyor of the format. Unhappy with Audible’s DRM policy, Doctorow passed up that lucrative distribution platform, relying on his fans to spread the word. And the model works, not only due to his generous licensing terms but, crucially, on the strength of his storytelling.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Winnipeg Free Press, Care2 Causes, and, naturally, AE. He maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.