Long story short: This book was a hell of a ride. It was slightly problematic as a novel, but damn if it wasn’t powerful anyway. It should probably be required reading. Long story long? Weeeeeellll. That’s when my brain starts to make whirring and booping noises and then I want to put my laptop away and go to sleep. Or eat a milkshake. Either one of those things, really.
Marcus Yallow is a seventeen year old in near-future San Francisco. When a terrorist attack hits the city, he and three of his friends are detained by the Department of Homeland Security. When Marcus doesn’t comply with their illegal interrogation tactics, they treat him even more harshly than they do his friends. When they are released, only three make it out. No one knows where Marcus’s friend Darryl is, if he’s even still alive. They are released back into the city, warned to tell no one of their experiences, and soon learn they’re not the only ones who are being closely monitored by the DHS. San Francisco has become a security state. Its citizens, terrified by the attack on their city, have given over most of their privacy in exchange for what they see as security from terrorists. But Marcus, with his firsthand experience of the effectiveness and illegality of the DHS’s tactics, knows there is more at stake than preventing terrorist attacks.
At first I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this book. The beginning is a very uncomfortable experience, to say the least. In parts, it actually made me so angry I could physically feel my blood pressure rising and had to stop listening for a while to calm down. But as soon as Marcus accidentally becomes the leader of an underground youth cyperpunk revolution intent on jamming the illegal activities of the DHS and upholding the Constitution and Bill of Rights, I was totally riveted. It was like the parts of Ready Player One where Wade is trying to take down the evil corporation, mixed with the parts of 1984 where Winston has his life ruined by a paranoid government with no regard for his humanity or individulaity, except worse because in this book we’re watching Marcus’s freedom slip away. We watch as the USA slips and slides down a path to becoming that government from 1984.
The problematic stuff comes when the desire to tell a story is overwhelmed by Doctorow’s need to pontificate about the dangers of sacrificing privacy and true freedom in the name of security. It’s a great message, and for the most part he integrates it organically into the story. But there are definitely spots where the message takes over and becomes the main point. I didn’t mind because I think, especially as denizens of the internet, the issues he dwells on are ones that are extremely relevant to all of us, no matter where on the political spectrum your beliefs lie. Plus, the fact that he uses a young narrator lends a really energetic, nerdy, techie vibe to the whole thing.
I’m really glad I read this book, and it’s definitely one I’ll be going back to in the future, once I can get myself a copy. Doctorow actually offers free copies of all his books on his website in many different forms, if you’re interested. I listened to the audiobook, which was great if you’re into that sort of thing.