This week I finished reading Homeland by Cory Doctorow, author and co-editor of Boing Boing. My immediate reason for reading it was an assignment from my CS seminar class about the internet and technology in society, but I had been meaning to read Little Brother for some time. Homeland is the sequel to Little Brother, and while I was not familiar with the storyline, the book is a pretty easy read so I jumped right in. Doctorow wrote both Little Brother and Homeland for young adults to be both accessible and educational about technology and civil liberties. Doctorow is somewhat of an anti-copyright activist and thus the books, like all of his work can be obtained for free from his website, but if you enjoy them, I urge you to buy them as well and support his work.
Homeland undertakes a great deal in a small space and is fairly successful. Doctorow pursues various themes in his book, while seeking to explain a complex and technical world to an unfamiliar audience, all of which occurs only for the backdrop of a riveting storyline that must keep the reader’s attention. Having not read the previous story of which Homeland is a sequel to, many of the events and background was not familiar to me, yet it was consistently well-explained. Furthermore, the intense technical nature of many of the plot devices were adequately covered so that the audience not only knew what was occurring, but inevitably learned a great deal about privacy, cryptography, and information security in the process. This translated into pushing many of the themes of the book, notably that technology can be a force for both good and evil, and if prying eyes want to know what you’re doing, you can’t always stop them. But Homeland also gives some insight into the hacker culture and catalogs many of the tools that government dissidents can use to hide their activities like secure linux distros, Tor, and VPNs. And it does all this while maintaining a fascinating plot and interesting characters.
However, it is isn’t perfect. Doctorow’s politics are not particularly subtle, and with the exception of a few anonymous hackers, the vast majority of the characters are pretty starkly divided into “good guy hacktivists” and “bad guy enforcers”. In some sense, this is due to the limitations of the genre with Homeland aimed at the young adult audience where the appeal of the fighting-the-man scenarios is an excellent plot device. But it also detracts from the overall message;Homeland paints an incredible story of why civil liberties must be so carefully guarded and how destructive life can become when they are gone–but the story itself might feel too forced to fit that message.
Of course, I would emphasize that while some of the technology itself might not be realistic (although in a couple years that won’t be true anymore), almost every important point in the book has already happened. With the passage of the 2012 NDAAauthorizing the president to detain indefinitely any US citizen suspected of being involved in terrorist activities, the use of water boarding by the US government, and the well-documented use of defense contractors, much of the more unbelievable actions the government took in Homeland have already occurred in real life. Thus, Doctorow’s book offers a sobering outlook on the technologically advanced world we live in, and a powerful message about where the abuses of unbridled authority can lead. I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in cyber security, technology and politics, or anyone who simply wants to know more about the dark world of hackers, crypto, and anonymity.