This was up for a Best Novel in the Hugo awards and if I’d been eligible to vote that year I’d certainly have voted for it. Yes, it’s aimed at YA, but what the hell, it has Important things to say so don’t overlook it.
Marcus is 17, a clever kid, a gamer, a computer hacker and a bit of a rebel when it comes to skipping out of school to go off gaming with his three closest friends. What he is not, is a terrorist, but when terrorists blow up the San Francisco Bay Bridge Marcus and his three friends are in the wrong place at the wrong time. His best friend Darryl is injured in the post-bomb panic and while trying to attract help the four of them are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security – effectively bagged, tagged and disappeared without rights – and subjected to interrogation of the nastiest kind using techniques such as deprivation, degradation, scare tactics and mental torture. Marcus – for asserting his constitutional rights – gets on the wrong side of one of the DHS goons and is subjected to worse than the others, but eventually, just when he thinks they are going to either kill him or ship him out to some anonymous holding facility without trial, he’s released along with his friends – or two of them at least. Darryl has disappeared. No one will admit he was ever in custody and the three survivors are warned that if they tell what happened to them they will disappear permanently.
It’s the start of a nightmare in which Marcus leads a campaign to fight back using hacker techniques to bring together the young disaffected and corrupting the ever increasing surveillance technology as San Francisco, besieged by the DHS, becomes a divided city – half of its population living in fear while the other half applaud the DHS measures to protect them from the invisible terrorists.
No spoilers in this review because that would be a shame. You need to read this book for yourself and make your own mind up just how far fetched this scenario might be given the right set of circumstances. Have our freedoms already been eroded? How close are we already with facial recognition software, tracking via mobile phones and the chips in our bank cards? is it invason or privacy or all for our own protection?
Cory Doctorow has written a tense, exciting novel with relentless pace and a totally believable protagonist who is alternately scared and brave – or often both at the same time. It’s one of those books that you think should become a classic. Maybe in a few years it will be required reading in schools. I hope so. It deserves to be. Then again, maybe it will become a subversive text, passed from hand to hand beneath the desk. Either way – it works for me.