Sunday, March 10, 2013

A dystopian novel of Northern California


By "Northern California" London-based novelist Cory Doctorow actually means "San Francisco" (with a glace toward Sacramento). I caught up with him by email during a promotional book tour in the US and asked whether he had ever been to Chico. He thought for a long time, he writes, and though he hasn't journeyed through Butte County, he likely has flown over it. What little surveillance he has given us is nothing compared to the digital dystopia he imagines in "Homeland" ($17.99 in hardcover from Tor Teen; also available in Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble e-book formats).

Doctorow ( is a prolific science-fiction novelist, co-editor of the Boing Boing blog, and a writer and speaker on digital freedom issues. He is a foe of "digital rights management" (DRM) software that, for example, prevents lawfully obtained e-books from being given to others. (The electronic versions of "Homeland" are DRM-free at the publisher's request.)

"Homeland," which takes place in the Bay Area and at Burning Man in Nevada, presents readers with a not-so-distant future in which electronic surveillance (especially of mobile devices) has become the norm by local governments and civilian organizations with contractual ties to the government (think Blackwater, only in the novel it's called Zyz). "Homeland" begins a few years after "Little Brother" and traces the further adventures of now 19-year-old Marcus Yallow who had been brutalized by officials in San Francisco after a terrorist attack.

Now, Marcus has received 800,000 files (think "WikiLeaks") that detail technology's misuse in the name of "keeping us safe." There are the school officials who can view what goes on at home without student laptops' camera lights coming on; the Hearts and Minds "persona management" software Zyz uses that creates "astroturf" (not true grass roots) movements designed to sway public opinion with "paid operatives"; and lobbying efforts to make student loans even more difficult to pay off.

Marcus and his "hactivist" friends are targeted by Zyz as trouble. Doctorow details the geeky use of the "darknet," a place online that the files can be kept without links to who put them there, and amid police roundups, Zyz rough-ups, political run-ups, and relationship break-ups, Marcus finds a voice for a utopian vision of justice and freedom in this fast-paced and unnerving story.

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