Cory Doctorow's award-winning YA novel "Little Brother" (2008) was an enjoyable cautionary tale, and so I looked forward to the sequel. To my disappointment, "Homeland" expands on the first book's principal flaw--its preachiness--and departs from the suspensefulness that made it work, thus drawing greater attention to the flaws in his protagonist.
The new story is set a couple of years after the events in "Little Brother." Marcus Yarrow, who is struggling to pay for his college classes, is trying to find work. His parents, as always sympathetic, supportive but clueless, are now, unfortunately, also underemployed. The story opens with Marcus and his girlfriend, Ange Carvelli, attending the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert. This is the best part of the novel, in part because Doctorow describes the event so well, and in part because he recreates some of the mystery and suspense that drove "Little Brother." (Doctorow also juices up the Burning Man part of the book with some surprising real-life cameos.) At the festival, Marcus is given a thumb drive with sensitive documents that compromise the misdoings of a government contractor, and is instructed to post the materials on the Web if the source should "disappear."
There's some promise to this set up, but the momentum is quickly lost. When the source of course disappears, Marcus decides first to catalog the documents in his possession; this plot device allows characters from the first novel to come back in from the cold. Marcus's trusted network sets to work reading and providing notes on the trove of files, and while not quite a Sisyphean task, neither is it practicable. Meanwhile, Marcus lands a job as the chief technology officer for the campaign of an independent California politician so pure he seems to wear a halo. He's basically President Obama before the Left lost faith in him. And here's where you realize the storyteller's didacticism is beginning to get the better of the story.
It's not the government per se, as in the first novel, that's evil. No, what's egregiously wrong with the country now is that the people's choice for president (read President Obama here) has been corrupted: he's opted to compromise his ideals. Thus, California candidate Joe Noss represents the undying hope for the ideal candidate that Obama had once been for so many. But perfect people don't make for interesting stories.
Neither does the work of cataloguing documents. Eventually, Marcus's friends, perhaps responding to the reader's mutterings, also start asking Marcus why they're doing it. At around this point, Occupy San Francisco-style protests begin to kick up, and the police brutally attempt to suppress them. Why? Just because, apparently. Marcus gets caught up in this police activity and the experience shakes him up to the point that he finally gets around to where we all were from the start: He abandons the cataloguing idea.
Ultimately, the problem with this novel is that the characters, their activities, and their aspirations are all so self-absorbed. The world seems to exist to entertain Marcus and his friends. Even in love, relationships develop to gratify oneself. (Marcus is pleased with Ange because of everything she is and does for *him.*) The characters seek to do their own thing unmolested, and if everyone sought that, this social ethic seems to suggest, then society would be better off. It's not apparent that the characters feel that they have a social responsibility to help others. As a result, there's not a lot of light between the left-leaning libertarianism of this book and the right-wing Ayn Rand's rational egoism.
As for the political sensibility underlying the story, Doctorow seems to reduce the modern, complex American political scene to the certainly problematical "one percent." That one percent of the U.S. population owns 40 percent of the nation's wealth is inequitable and unjust. That the monied class and big corporations corrupt politics through money is deleterious to democracy. But for the analysis to stop there is to ignore the reality that the early 21st century American populace is deeply polarized, with significant numbers of Americans, particularly in the South, supporting far right, Tea Party positions. I guess one must forgive the Californians of the novel for not knowing that Dixie is not San Francisco.
The author, too, gets self-indulgent at times. We saw this (and found it cute then) when the characters in "Little Brother" started getting "foodie" on us, waxing poetic on burritos. In "Homeland," Marcus's ability to make awesome cold brew and hot brew coffee just seems like another, increasingly annoying manifestation of his self-absorption.
One of the things the author does do well, just as with the first novel, is to capture the thrill of savviness with computers and computer networks. For that reason, and I mean this genuinely, the annotated bibliography at the end of the book is its best feature. Doctorow provides lots of great suggestions: you might do well to start with those books instead.