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Homeland by Cory Doctorow

Homeland by Cory DoctorowReview: Homeland by Cory Doctorow (Tor Teen, 2013)

As Bradley Manning, hero of the Wikileaks scandal, endures his court martial under a near-total blanket of secrecy from the powers that be, and the tech world still reels from the suicide of Aaron Swartz (who provides a posthumous afterword), it seems a perfect time to talk about Homeland, the latest young adult novel by king of the geeks Cory Doctorow and sequel to his wonderful YA debut Little Brother. In the previous volume a young tech enthusiast named Marcus (or MiK3y) was hounded by the government following a terrorist attack on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. Aided by overreaching new laws they hounded him and his friends, to a point including waterboarding, for their part in organising an underground knowledge network on the Darknet in order to disseminate news about the horrific abuses of power being carried out int he name of security.

Homeland opens a couple of years into the future. Far from fulfilling his promise as a computer whizzkid, Marcus has been forced to abandon his college studies due to lack of funding. His government blacklisting has resulted in the loss of his father’s job, making things tight for everyone. Keeping himself busy through tinkering with 3D printing he finds himself at the Burning Man festival where Masha, an old acquaintance, appears from nowhere and passes something into his possession, an encryption key, with a sinister message. If she suddenly disappears or is found dead he is to use the key to decrypt a file hosted on Pirate Bay’s servers and make it public. As a snoop for the Department Of Homeland Security she has been collecting all manner of incriminating documents from other operatives whose consciences could no longer bear the weight of the secrets they were carrying. The file is dynamite, set to expose all manner of wrongdoing from torture to government complicity in the spiraling circle of debt so many find themselves trapped in.

Soon after this meeting Masha and her partner Zeb vanish from sight, soon after Marcus spots his nemesis Carrie Johnstone (responsible for his torture) patrolling the camp. Seconds later there is a massive, ‘accidental’ explosion involving one of the automotive art installations and when the dust clears Carrie is gone. What follows for Marcus is yet another series of trials, both mental and physical, stretching his integrity and his relationships to breaking point and forcing himself to fight the demons of his past. Should he release the documents? What will the consequences be? How should he do this and does he truly have the backbone to go through with it? Both aiding and abetting his quest is his appointment to the position of technical manager for a firebrand independent politician’s election campaign.

Doctorow manages to push all the right buttons in Homeland, giving us some snippets of actions, hefty doses of righteous indignation, comic relief and allowing high enough doses of reality to keep everything grounded. The characters from Little Brother become more fleshed out with that of Marcus being particularly well written. It’s no mean feat to make a neurotic, obsessive geek into a likable hero but aside from a few questionable decisions he fits the bill pretty well. In fact he veers away from the hero archetype, spending plenty of time weighing the options between going down in a blaze of glory – hounded as he is by the government, mercenaries and hackers alike – and simply ducking for cover to save his own skin and protect those around him. His decisions are real and they are hard, eliciting plenty sympathy from the reader.

Most rewarding for me, and the reason I picked it up, is the fact that Homeland – like Little Brother and Pirate Cinema before it – reads almost like a manual for youth insurrection. It’s steeped in technical know-how from start to finish, discussing online privacy, cryptography, surveillance and general politics – not to mention how to cold-brew the perfect cup of coffee! I have said many times that these books make me wish I had been born in the late 90’s so I could be coming of age in a world where all of this is accessible to an impressionable teen. It’s inspiring stuff and has already inspired me to start learning a couple of programming languages as well as expanding my knowledge of Linux operating systems. Not content with simply weaving these elements into the tale, Doctorow provides a handy appendix full of links and references to get you or your child started as a hacker/caffeine addict.

Homeland, despite its heavy topics, is a very easy and enjoyable read. If you have any interest at all in technology, the internet, freedom of speech, open government and other related topics then regardless of your age you will get something out of it. It inspires both thought and action while dressing everything up in the garb of a traditional thriller transposed to modern times. If you have kids in their teenage years simply do not hesitate – buy this book for them now. It’s dark for sure and may instill an inherent distrust for authority but is that really such a bad thing?

(As a closing word it should be pointed out that Homeland, like all of Cory Doctorow’s works, is available to download for free from his website, Craphound. Unlike anti-consumer websites such as Amazon, Doctorow performed an experiment whereby he simultaneously released books for free and for sale. The results were undeniable – those books with free versions sold far more copies than pay-only volumes. Word of mouth goes a long way. So go try it for free if you have a reader – any reader as his books, unlike Amazon’s, are entirely DRM-free and can be read on any kind or number of devices. If you want to pay him some money for his efforts – and the free copies are peppered with reminders and shout-outs to his favourite independent bookstores – then you can buy a paper copy afterwards and have it donated to a library or public school. This is the future of publishing, not the fearful ‘we own your purchases’ attitude of Amazon, Apple, etc.)

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Filed under Tech, Thriller, Young Adult

Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse

Wastelands by John Jospeh AdamsReview: Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams (Night Shade Books, 2008)

He only wanted to make the world a better place. To stop us fighting, arguing, wasting our time on petty disagreements. He thought it would help. And it did, for a while. People were kinder and gentler. They laughed with each other, they played games, they enjoyed life. But soon, that was all they did. Then the memories started to disappear, and before long they couldn’t do anything, not even take care of themselves. And by then it was too late. No-one who could have reversed the effects had the brainpower any more. Goodnight humanity.

Thus runs Stephen King’s gloriously bleak ‘The End Of The Whole Mess‘, the first tale in Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalyose, a diverse collection of post-apocalyptic short fiction from the master of the sci-fi compendium John Joseph Adams. King’s story, narrated in diary form by one Howard Fornoy, tells of how his genius younger brother Robert inadvertently brought mankind to a grinding halt. In an attempt to alleviate our more violent instincts he researches a chemical synthesised from water in the mysteriously peaceful small town of La Plata. Using a volcanic eruption to disperse the ‘cure’ around the globe he is at first elated by the effects. All too late he realises that it doesn’t stop there – the drug eventually leads to a state indistinguishable from Alzheimer’s. The final few journal entries by Howard are a respectful hat-tip to Daniel Keyes’ heartbreaking classic Flowers For Algernon as the narrator’s own mental powers slowly slip away.

Post-apocalyptic fiction usually carries a reputation for being excessively dark – grim and nihilistic are the order of the day. However by corralling 22 stories from some of today’s finest SF/Fantasy authors, John Joseph Adams has turned Wastelands into a vehicle from smashing such stereotypes into the dust. Yes, there are some ultimate downers to be found in these pages, Paulo Bagiaculpi’s ‘People Of Sand And Slag‘ being one example which may have you reaching for the Kleenex. It’s not all doom and gloom though, there is comedy to be found as well as sheer aching beauty in some of these visions of the future.

The apocalypse can take many forms, such as the one encountered Octavia Butler’s silent ‘Speech Sounds‘. She imagines a disease sweeping the world and removing the ability to communicate. To differing degrees people suddenly find themselves robbed of speech and handwriting skills but otherwise unimpaired. The paranoia instilled by a sudden total dependence on body languages and the ambiguities which lie within soon has the world in flames. The intellectually isolated population tries to get on as best as it can but find that it’s difficult to live in a world where even an apparent favour from a stranger could be fraught with danger.

An old favourite of mine, Cory Doctorow’s ‘When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth‘ makes a welcome appearance in Wastelands. By turns dark and yet comically surreal it foists an almost slapstick, accidental armageddon upon us. One freak occurrence leads to panic in another area, setting off riots which trigger a terrorist attack which leads to an overreaching response – you see where this is going. In the space of a single evening every government and terrorist group has unleashed their arsenals, carpeting the world in nuclear, biological and conventional devastation. Our hero, Felix, is called to his Toronto data center just as events are picking up. One of the first manifestations of the looming catastrophe is a worm knocking out his routers and as sysadmin he slumps out of bed, leaving his wife and daughter behind, and gets to work. It’s the last time he sees them alive. Safe inside the vault-like server storage unit, he and his other nerd friends weather the events in safety. Piecing together what they can by communicating with similar safe havens around the globe they proceed to construct an internet-based government to cope with the disaster. Unfortunately it transpires that getting geeks to agree on politics is a process similar to herding cats.

Wastelands helped to forge John Joseph Adams’s reputation as one of our finest curators of short fiction. His other anthologies such as The Mad Scientist’s Guide To World Domination demonstrate a similar eclecticism and eye for the exceptional. While not every tale in this collection is perfect the average hit rate is astoundingly high, with far too many favourites for me to list here. Fans of the post-apocalypse or just well-told sci-fi and fantasy tales in general should stop off for a while to recharge their batteries. From Dale Bailey’s sardonic ‘The End Of The World As We Know It‘ to Neal Barrett Jr’s gleefully silly ‘Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus‘ there is truly something here for everyone

Oh, and Jerry Oltion’s ‘Judgement Passed‘ may be the single finest piece of writing about The Rapture ever conceived…

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Filed under Anthology, Fantasy, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction

Pirate Party

Pirate Cinema by Coy DoctorowReview: Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow (Tor Teen, 2012)

(Note: This was originally written for The Mountains Of Instead but turned out too long. I had to use it, especially in light of the recent death of Aaron Swartz. The themes of this book are very relevant to the case)

The year is, well, not so far from now. Life in the UK is much the same, only the technology has changed. Even in that sense society is entirely recognisable, with the only significant difference being further reliance on the internet: for study; for work; for recreation; even for claiming benefits. It is against this background that nerd icon Cory Doctorow sets his latest YA novel, Pirate Cinema.

Pirate Cinema opens with Trent McCauley, a nondescript 16 year old Bradford schoolkid, indulging in his hobby. Trent is a remixer, downloading any appearances of fictional actor Scot Colford which he can lay his hands on and rearranging them into his own wildly creative and popular montages. Unfortunately for Trent, the entertainment industry takes a dim view of such activities and under the draconian laws of the land his family have their internet service disconnected.

Even today this would be a blow to many people – one year without access to email, Facebook, YouTube and everything else. In Trent’s world it is nigh a death sentence. His younger sister is cut off from vital educational resources in the middle of her schooling. His father, barely scraping by at an online temping gig, has his sole source of income removed. His mother can no longer apply for benefits to aid her crippling leg problems, nor can she find any online help. Trent, shocked by the consequences of his innocent downloading, flees home and heads for the bright lights of London.

By the end of his first night he has lost his laptop (using it as a pillow while sleeping in a park was perhaps a silly idea) and is reduced to begging for change. Fortunately he is adopted by Jem, a genuinely altruistic old hand at this life and Doctorow briefly transforms Pirate Cinema into Oliver Twist. Jem introduces Trent to the smart (and honest) way to live on the streets, with the principle of sharing their gains with those less fortunate at the forefront of their minds. Before long they are squatting in an abandoned pub and renovating it, transforming it into a veritable palace.

Trent soon finds his internet feet again and is continuing his remixing under the alias Cecil B. DeVil. This soon lands him in hot water yet again and matters escalate to the point of a legal battle and a grassroots war with the entertainment industry and the corrupt politicians whose pockets they are filling to ensure their laws pass. The ongoing collaborations with Trent and his new-found activist friends, set against the scheming and machinations of the executives and politicians, form the meat of Pirate Cinema, with Cory Doctorow subjecting his characters to all manner of mishaps and misadventures before reaching an exhilarating conclusion.

Pirate Cinema is a great little read. My only real gripe was his often embarrassing attempts so conduct dialogue using teenage slang. Canadian Doctorow has been resident in the UK for several years but his grasp of kidspeak is tenuous at best and makes for some unintentional giggle along the way. Seriously, I have never seen anyone say “Cor!” outside of the Beano.

On the plus side, it never takes itself too seriously and plays about with pop culture references, pokes gentle fun at its geeky excesses and manages to entertain and ultimately educate at the same time. It’s suited perfectly to an audience of an age with its protagonist and any references to sex, drugs and swearing are subtly glossed over. It’s possible that some may find Doctorow’s style overly preachy, an accusation levelled at his previous YA effort Little Brother (a book which made me wish I had been born 20 years later so I could be reading it as a teenager today). However, as an avowed copyfighter this was not an issue for me personally. Overall it delivers exactly what one would expect from a YA novel with this premise – a funny, rousing techno-fable which should please a wide audience, especially among computer-literate teens.

So that’s the meat of the review. Now for the Public Service Announcement. Pirate Cinema is a fictional novel but the world it depicts is most assuredly not. The legal battles, political maneuvering and lobbying which form the heart of the story are based, with very little exaggeration, on events occurring right now. UK readers may be familiar with the Digital Economy Act which passed in 2010 and handed unbelievable powers to rights holders to prosecute those they believe to be infringing copyright, even without evidence. France recently introduced a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule identical to that used in Pirate Cinema. The copyright battles in the US are probably well known to everyone with an internet connection.

There is a mammoth power struggle going on and unfortunately consumers and artists are getting the short end of the stick due mainly to simple lack of funding. Multi-billion dollar industries whose profits continue to grow year on year – despite deepening recessions – would have us believe that those who would dare to remix existing works and share them without charging a single penny are on a par with organised criminals like the mafia and should be jailed. People like me, who buy an ebook at Amazon for an insanely inflated price and are forced to use third party programs to strip its DRM and read it on the device of our choosing, are lawbreakers – a threat to the entire publishing industry.

This is not hyperbole. This is real. This is how the situation is portrayed to MPs by lobbyists with pockets full of party invitations and brown envelopes. People like Cory Doctorow are trying to help the situation by informing and educating.

And yes, he is a man with the courage of his convictions. Pirate Cinema is available for free download at his website, along with all of his other novels. Contrary to what the industry would have us believe, he conducted his own experiment and, in line with what other similar studies have shown, found that offering free downloads with no DRM at all actually increased sales of paper and electronic copies alike. Sharing is good. Sharing works.

(Okay, the free copy has regular ‘commercial interludes’ reminding you that he has to eat but this is a small price to pay. If so inclined you can choose to donate a copy to a school or library via his website while retaining a free copy yourself. This is very, very good thing.)

So there we have it. Call Pirate Cinema a simple novel, in which case it is a wonderfully enjoyable David and Goliath tale. Call it an educational supplement, opening people’s eyes to the goings-on around them. Call it a call to arms for today’s young generation, warning them of the need to exercise their rights and maintain eternal vigilance. Whichever way you look at it, Pirate Cinema is a gem of a book for any tech-oriented, creative or even vaguely pro-active mind.

Download Pirate Cinema: http://craphound.com/pc/download/
Open Rights Group: http://www.openrightsgroup.org/
Electronic Frontier Foundation: https://www.eff.org/

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Filed under Humour, Tech, Young Adult