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. Outraged, Marcus 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 facts, observations, 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 for 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.)