This is another book I absolutely raced through and felt breathless when I was done because it is that good. I have no clue why it’s taken me so long to write this review.
It’s post 9/11 and Homeland Security is the norm. 17 year old Marcus lives in San Francisco and spends his time in the world of computers and figuring out how to outsmart the near constant surveillance of his school and city. His real life friends and online crew bristle against the pressure being put on them on both sides of the computer, but Marcus has no clue what reality is until he’s temporarily removed from it.
While skipping school to search for the next clue for an intense online game, the Bay Bridge is blown up and Marcus and his friends are taken in for questioning. It doesn’t matter that he knows his rights; he hasn’t been arrested, and he’s not talking to the police. Homeland Security has him and all they want him to do is prove that he’s not guilty. After being tortured and humiliated he finds himself willing to say or do anything they want if it means they will let him go. At the mercy of their sadistic methods, he signs for his life and is dumped on the sidewalk, “free”. Too bad one friend is still missing.
Terrified and angry, he can’t tell his parents what happened. Even if he did, he’s not sure if they’d believe him. His dad is in full Rah-Rah-America mode, celebrating the surveillance and security measures that are now in place. Getting pulled over for questioning makes him proud to be an American and do his civic duty, and he’s angry at the thought that Marcus would dare speak out against what’s best for the country, their city, and their home.
As anger grows bigger than fear, Marcus decides to fight back. No one can speak the truth and no one really knows what the truth is. Using his knowledge of computers and pulling from his friends, he creates an online network that appears to be safe. They begin frantically sharing data and stories and trying to jam Homeland’s systems. Some of it is laughingly easy to disable and Marcus is saddened by the impotence of what was created to make people feel safe. Was it even put in place to work or do people just want to see cameras on the streets?
Marcus knows he doesn’t have much time. As he’s pushed closer to having to go public and needing more support, he knows he’s being watched and can be grabbed at any moment. How much information can he get out before he disappears into a trailer again?
This book was exciting, depressing, hopeful, and wonderful. On a happy coincidence, I’d recently read Finding George Orwell in Burma [my review is here] and then 1984 [my review is here] and this made an incredible third partner. Doctorow read 1984 for the first time when he was twelve and in the bibliography he explains how it affected him. A lot of what is happening with Homeland Security is foreshadowed by Orwell and it’s terrifying to know that this is reality. It’s easy to ignore it. It’s easy to agree with Marcus’ dad and feel that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about. Only “those people” get caught, so why is this my problem?
The parts that take place in Marcus’ school are especially suffocating and frustrating. High school can suck without any help, but what happens when your classmates are rewarded for reporting terrorist-like conversations and your favorite teacher suddenly can’t be found after facilitating a powerful and educational debate on the Bill of Rights? What do you do when motion detecting sensors are placed in the hallways and classes are recorded to keep kids safe? How do you fight back when every word you chose can be used against you? It’s a double lock of having no power as a minor and having no power as a public high school student. It’s enough to kick the reader into an anxiety attack because all of this can happen and it is happening. Oh, and on top of all of this? He’s got his first girlfriend and is dizzy with hormones and bliss.
Although the paranoia can feel overwhelming, this book is hopeful and there are fantastic references at the end. I hope it encourages readers of all ages (this is tagged as YA) to learn more about how computers are being used, and how they can use computers.
The second book, Homeland, will be published in 2013. I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes next.