Disappointing is the novel whose critical messages are undone by the weakness of its narrative. Doubly disappointing when the work contains a number of critical messages, which are of paramount relevance to the world today. Envision a situation where The Jungle isn't a compelling read, and so the corrupt meat packing industry is never forced to change in the face of public outrage. This is a close parallel to Cory Doctorow's Homeland, a novel which bravely addresses a great number of issues which the USA is currently facing. He drags these issues, kicking and screaming, out into the open where we can see them for all their hideous truths. Setting the story in a future that could be tomorrow, with headlines copied from yesterday, leads to the unsettling realization that the country is coming up on a cliff, a high water point of no return.
This is an incredibly important book, which tackles issues as widely reaching as our burgeoning police state, torture in the name of safety, the horrific nature of water boarding, manipulation of the populace through disinformation and subterfuge, the crooked nature of the market crash bank bailouts, and the continuing corruption of campaign financing. There's more, lots more, and yet this book doesn't come as highly recommended as its important messages should warrant. This is primarily because the protagonist, Marcus Yallow, is quite unappealing to spend 400 pages with. The narrative presence from the previous book in the series (Little Brother, Tor Teen, 414pps), Marcus is a teenage hacktivist who was wrongfully detained and tortured by the Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist attack terrorist attack destroys a bridge. Unfortunately he is a self important, pretentious, obnoxious punk, and it takes a very many pages to begin to feel sympathetic to his plight.
Not helping the case to enjoy Marcus as the story's point of immersion is author Doctorow's decision to have him perform actions depicted as awesome, then have him same character viciously mock a secondary character for doing a similar thing. Quite early on in the story, Marcus meets an internet celebrity (and former Star Trek The Next Generation actor) in an uncomfortable bit of name dropping. Several chapters later, a young computer enthusiast who looks up to Marcus (the events of Little Broth having made him famous) name drops Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, and is then treated to mockery. This pervasive hipster sensibility goes a long way toward alienating potential readers (possibly anyone over twenty-five). Admittedly this is a Young Adult novel but the best works from that subgenre appeal beyond their demographic.
The story picks up with Marcus, and his girlfriend Ange, bumping into his nemesis from the first book, Masha, at Burning Man. She's in possession of a thumb drive containing a massive quantity of government and corporate secrets. It's very much a parallel of the Wikileaks situation. Marsha asks Marcus to expose all of the information to the world if she happens to get snatch by either the DHS or private military contractors (think Blackwater), which she does before another day even passes. Upon returning home to a California which is completely bankrupt, to the home of his unemployed former middle class parents, to take a job as the webmaster of an independent political candidate for change, Marcus finds himself beset by the forces of corruption almost immediately. He and his friends begin to pour over the digital documents and quickly realize that this is a serious problem which they have to help correct. But how?
Homeland takes its time in introducing sympathetic characters, and admittedly has a stronger, more poignant second half than first, but is discussing such critical issues to contemporary society that for some it will be worth the investment. For others the message may not feel critically important enough to spend the time getting there. For the intended teen audience, it's even more crucial to explore and ponder the issues covered in Homeland, as they can course correct the future. It's also probable that a young adult audience may take to Marcus more quickly than an adult audience would. All Maniacs will likely enjoy the immersion in the slightly-beyond-current technology blended with actual reality. The overall value of this cautionary tale is yours to decide and discuss. Homeland is available now in Hardback from Tor Teen for $17.99.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Saturday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famousColonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.