I usually like the books I read. This one came with good credentials: it
won the 2009 Prometheus
Award for best libertarian novel. It got a rave from
Ron Bailey at Reason. The author, Cory Doctorow, is a famous blogger. And yet, it's awful.
Cardboard heros. Strawman villains. Leaden dialog.
The narrating protagonist, Marcus, is a teenage geek whiz kid with
more than a little Ferris Bueller in him. He lives in a
roughly-present-day San Francisco, loves gaming, computers, and
circumventing surveillance systems.
One day he cuts school, meeting
with his friends for a little alternate-reality gaming downtown.
Unfortunately, his fun is spoiled when terrorists decide to blow
up the Bay Bridge and BART's Transbay Tube, killing thousands.
Even worse, the Department of Homeland Security is on the
scene, sweeping up Marcus and his friends, taking them to an undisclosed
location. (Oh, heck, I'll disclose it: Treasure Island.)
Marcus is held for days under suspicion of being in league with
the terrorists; it's never really explained why. Eventually he's
released, but to a world that has Changed Forever. The DHS has
essentially taken over the city, increased
spying on the citizenry by a thousandfold,
cracking down hard on anyone who raises a peep.
Every seventy pages or so,
those four thousand dead San Franciscans get mentioned. But their
killers aren't the villians here: they
are clearly just an excuse for the power-mad government's crackdown.
declares war against the new anti-terror tyranny, and over the next few months,
sets himself up as a leader of a half-vast cybernetic resistance.
The book stacks the deck unmercifully; Doctorow makes Ayn Rand look
like a relativist wimp.
The villians (DHS and its enforcers) are
lip-curling bullies and sadists. About all they're missing is mustaches
they can twirl, cackling as they tie Marcus to the BART tracks.
The DHS brutes aren't on their own, of course: they're taking orders
from the top, in the form of Kurt Rooney, "known nationally has the
President's chief strategist". (Gosh, do you think that
could just possibly be a thin disguise for someone else
with the same initials?)
Marcus, and everyone on his side,
is as self-righteous as the villians are eeevil. In this epic struggle
between the Little Guys vs. Vicious Oppressors, I was sorely tempted
to cheer for the VOs, simply because the LGs are
so tediously obnoxious. And it's not just the irritating simplistic
lectures about civil liberties, and how the Left is right about
everything, all the time: Marcus is compelled to core-dump
opinions, and judgments on any topic whatsoever upon us poor
readers. Sculpture. Kerouac. Burritos. Rosa Luxembourg.
Crypto. Flooring. Abbie Hoffman. And on and on. And on.
Imagine the most annoying know-it-all seventeen-year-old
kid you've ever met, then imagine him rambling on for a few hundred
pages. That's Marcus. He's like a nonstop Buffalo Springfield song
lyric without the subtlety.
Example: nearing a big climactic scene in downtown SF,
Marcus discloses his hatred for the Civic Center, and action stops
a page-and-a-half discussion of Jane Jacobs and her critiques of urban
planning. I liked Ms. Jacobs too, but… sheesh, not here.
So, anyway, I didn't like it. But, hey, you might. (And, honestly,
I might have liked it, if I were forty or fifty years younger.
Because I was once an annoying know-it-all seventeen-year-old kid myself.)