Cory Doctorow is a digital guru living in a world that’s still largely stuck in the analog. He does things many people consider to be bananas.
“I’ve been giving away my books ever since my first novel came out, and boy has it ever made me a bunch of money,” he once wrote in Forbes magazine.
The free downloads of his sci-fi, he argues, are read by people who would never bother to actually buy his books, but his unorthodox methods give him high visibility with such folk. This, Doctorow believes, leads to well-paying gigs – such as the Forbes piece.
Plus, those readers who are fans will go on to buy the book as a gesture of support.
Critics argue that Doctorow can afford to make this argument because of his day job(s) — he’s intermittently an academic, computer coder, and an editor at the tech/pop culture website Boing Boing. And it’s true that his work boosting the internationalist, cooperative and personally empowering politic of the decentralized Internet has made him famous.
His Young Adult novel, Homeland (2013), can be found – free! – on his website, craphound.com. It’s a sequel to Little Brother (also free, it’s one of the 10 books on this year’s CBC Radio Canada Reads list). In that first tale, young Marcus Yallow is arrested by an American government gone mad with panic after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Yallow is an innocent, tortured by agents of a “tyrannical security state”.
As for Homeland, it can also be found, in print, on the Lennoxville Library’s New Arrival shelves (in Young Adult Fiction). And just like Doctorow, it’s all about the new electronic frontier. Marcus Yallow is back, jobless and poor, camping at the annual Burning Man, held in a Nevada desert, “dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance” (according to the festival’s website – Burning Man is a real thing!). The gathering also runs as a gift economy, where everyone who attends is expected to give something back – sunblock, cookery, reading material, entertainment….
Unexpectedly, Yallow is handed a data key and instructed to leak the documents within to the world if his source disappears. A few paragraphs later, she does.
What follows is a thriller inspired by Julian Assange and the Wikileaks website (see also the motion picture Fifth Estate, released in October and starring current heartthrob Benedict Cumberbatch), the US government’s apparent overstepping in the War on Terror, and the ever-more complex mixing of federal agencies and private enterprise operating as paid mercenaries for the state.
This is a great read for people who are just dipping their toes into the politics of technology. There’s explanations of 3D printers, details on the “dark web” (note however, that the secret, illegal drug- and arms-selling Silk Road website was just shut down by the real-world FBI), and arguments made for less onerous copyright laws.
In a recent interview, Doctorow said: “It’s a tradition in techno thrillers to have have spycraft excerpts. James Bond explains his cypher wheel. On one hand, this is in that tradition. I grew up with books like Steal This Book [by 1960s counter-cultural hero Abbie Hoffman] and The Whole Earth Catalog — books that were filled with recipes or instructions for doing stuff. That was back when facts were expensive. How do you cheat a pay phone to give you a dial tone without a quarter?” Now, of course, Doctorow offers a primer and, fingers crossed that you’ll follow up, directs you to the Internet for more.
Proud nerds will be entertained by a cameo by Wil Wheaton (the teenaged crew member on the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV show) and a series of well-known Internet free speech activists playing Dungeons And Dragons in a yurt.
But Marcus Yallow is also interested in old-style tech: Doctorow uses his protagonist to showcase his own zen-like obsession with how to make the perfect cup of cold-brewed coffee.
This is not a subtle book. It’s about a small group of tech-savvy freedom fighters valiantly fighting against dystopia.
“Once upon a time, my government turned my city into a police state….
“I decided that the problem wasn’t the system, but who was running it. Bad guys had gotten into places of high office. We needed good apples. I worked my butt off to get people to vote for good apples. We had elections. We installed the kind of apples everyone agreed would be the kind of apples we could be proud of…
“And then, well, the good apples turned out to act pretty much exactly like the bad apples. Oh, they had reasons. There were emergencies. Circumstances…. But there were always emergencies, weren’t there? …. when would the emergencies finally end?”
Power corrupts, and the emergencies are used for nefarious ends. The thousands upon thousands of Yallow’s leaked documents are filled with tales of torture, kidnappings, secret surveillance (including of elementary school children), and of lobbyists sneaking through laws that will soak the poor for the benefit of the already very, very rich.
Not surprisingly, various people want that data key back. And they set out to find Yallow, who in turn spends a lot of time considering and refining his ideas about the Internet, power, and information.
The future, he decides, is us.
– Eleanor Brown, November 22, 2013