Hacking for Freedom

Cory Doctorow's sequel to Little Brother explores the struggle for civil liberties on the Internet.


Homeland, by Cory Doctorow, Tor Teen, 400 pages, $17.99 

Poor Marcus Yallow. After tangling with the Department of Homeland Security in Cory Doctorow's earlier young adult novel, 2007's Little Brother, he wants nothing more than a job, time with his girlfriend, and some fun at the annual Burning Man festival. Fortunately for the reader, trouble soon finds Yallow in Homeland, Doctorow's sequel. An acquaintance, Masha, gives him a USB stick with a cryptographic key that will unlock a four-gigabyte file of secret government documents. Masha tells him to release its contents if she's ever arrested.

All too soon, Yallow sees Masha and her boyfriend being captured and taken away by Carrie Johnstone, the chief villain in Little Brother, so he's faced with taking responsibility for a document dump he didn't ask for that promises problems he didn't need.

By day, Yallow works within the system, taking a job as a webmaster for an independent candidate for the California senate. By night, he's a part of a guerrilla WikiLeaks-style operation, trying to deal with goons who are out to get him and hackers trying to control his computer and his information. Life gets even more complicated when he starts participating in large outdoor demonstrations that attract the attention of the police. The story should resonate with any reader who worries about online privacy and the government's ability to use the Net as a tool for political repression.

Although Yallow and his buddies are fictional, Homeland is studded with educational bits. One early chapter, for example, includes a recipe for cold-brew coffee. A librarian delivers a lecture on copyright reform. While at Burning Man, Yallow meets four heroes of the Internet—Mitch Kapor, John Gillmor, Wil Wheaton, and John Perry Barlow—and the reader is duly educated on how they relate to the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the creation of Lotus. The infodump continues after the novel ends, with an afterword by Jacob Appelbaum of WikiLeaks and another by the late Aaron Swartz. (Swartz, facing a federal trial and possible prison on felony charges for downloading academic documents, committed suicide on January 11. His exhortations here not to give in to despair and a feeling of powerlessness make for sad reading, but he also explains how political movements to preserve the Internet from censorship have a chance to succeed.) There is also a bibliographic essay on the topics the book covers. It's as if Doctorow, well-known both as a science fiction writer and as a contributor to Boing Boing, figured out how to be a novelist and a blogger in the same book.

The encounter with Kapor and company isn't the only way the novel intersects with reality. Yallow logs on to his laptop using the Paranoid Linux operating system, created to maximize the user's privacy. Paranoid Linux was fictional when Doctorow invented it in Little Brother, but it inspired the creation of a real, albeit short-lived, Paranoid Linux distro. And if you Google "Paranoid Linux," you'll learn about current Linux distributions that emphasize security, such as Tails and LPS. As Doctorow notes in his afterword, Googling terms in the book that might be unfamiliar to the reader—"hackerspace," "drone," "Tor Project," "lawful intercept"—provides many of the novel's educational experiences.

Although Homeland is rather political, there's a deep sense of ambivalence toward partisan politics and electioneering. Yes, Yallow works for a politician, and he doesn't give up on the democratic process, even after some difficult encounters with political reality. But Doctorow gives plenty of space to characters who take a darker view of normal politics. Barack Obama isn't mentioned by name, but one character complains bitterly, "Have you noticed how messed up everything is today? How we put a 'good' president in the White House and he kept right on torturing and bombing and running secret prisons? How every time we turn around, someone's trying to take away the Internet from us, make it into some kind of giant stupid shopping mall where the rent-a-cops can kick you out if they don't like your clothes? 

The marketing for Homeland resembles Internet applications such Pandora, which offer free versions with advertising and paid versions minus the ads. Doctorow is a copyright reform activist, and as with his other books he has made free electronic versions of Homeland available at his website under a Creative Commons license. The free version is frequently interrupted by messages plugging various bookstores and reminders from Doctorow that if you like the book, you really ought to buy a copy, if not for yourself then for your neighborhood library. I like most of Doctorow's causes, so I paid for my Kindle copy.

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  1. Tom Jackson on Cory Doctorow

    Hit ‘n’ Run now offers gay porn? NTTAWWT.

    1. What do you mean ‘now’ offers? That’s been like 90% of their content for years.

  2. I think we’ve all dreamed of Doctorow being forced into a gimp suit.

  3. THat dude seems to know what he is talking about.

    1. Yes he does Pedo-bot, yes he does.

      1. you know what other dude seemed to know what he was talking about?

        1. Willis?

        2. Cicero?

  4. “The story should resonate with any reader who worries about online privacy and the government’s ability to use the Net as a tool for political repression.”

    I want to know why someone hasnt hacked the FBI’s background check database and put every cop, government bureaucrat, Fienstien and Bloomburg on the ‘reject’ list.

    OT – Just for fun, yesterday afternoon I cast up a couple dozen silver bullets in RN .38 for my wife. She loves Sci-Fi/Fantasy stuff so she was delighted. Werewolves….you can never be too prepared.

    I will load a few up as gimmicks and leave the rest for her to make some kind of jewelry out of.

    1. Not only would I like to subscribe to your newsletter…But I want one of those bullets. And if you are taking requests a 357 Mag would be even better, but I will take 38

    2. Ask (well, pay), and ye shall receive:

    3. I remember reading some time ago about casting silver bullets and apparently it’s a major pain in the ass. From what I read, silver melts at a much higher temp than lead, and if there is air present it leads to pitting and other significant imperfections in the cast. Do you have any issues with it?

      1. I had to heat the molds hotter than usual, and I did have more waste than normal. Only about 1/3 of the castings produced usable bullets.

        Pure silver was nearly impossible to work with, not so much because of it’s melting temp ( 1761 F ), but because it is so light. Pouring it into the mold would not drive all of the air out and so, as you mentioned, they were pitted. I dont have a centrifugal mold…bullet molds are not made like jewelry molds, so pouring height is used to create pressure inside the blocks.

        I alloyed the silver with some lead/antimony which brought the melting temp down to around 500 F and gave it some heft. If I poured from about 3 in. above the mold and left a large amount of sprue. This gave me acceptable castings.

        I have not loaded them into casings yet, but they are sized, lubed and ready to go. I will probably do that today. Yes, I am loading them as fully functional ammo; They are shootable.

        I say they are useless gimmicks because silver is a really crappy metal for bullets. It is too light and too fragile. One of the bullets crushed in the sizer, crumbling to pieces.

        In any case they polished up very nicely and are exactly what I wanted.

  5. I like most of Doctorow’s causes, so I paid for my Kindle copy.

    Doctorow only cares about online privacy and civil liberties so far as to maintain his image of cypherpunk cool. Other than that, he is the worst example of the HuffPo-Guardian axis of smug Progressivism.

    1. He is Canadian after all.

    2. ^This

      Except I think he believes in the IP stuff, the guy practices what he preaches and puts all his stuff online for free.

      But in his world, it’s the evul corporashuns at the heart of all the worlds problems. The government is only wrong in that it has been influenced by said evil.

    3. ^^This.

      Also, I’m sorry but all his story ideas sound like they were dreamed up by some 12-year-old wannabe hacker.

      1. His recent books are for 12 year olds. Older stuff was good, weird and written for adults. For my taste anyway. ‘Down and out in the magic kingdom’. There was another one with a sentient washing machine and mountain, kinda like a Frank Zappa song, lol…

        1. I must admit that Little Brother was not only excellent but it actually gave me a wealth of info on crypto and security…Now I subscribe to Bruce Schnierer’s site, so He had a positive effect on me in that regard. As to his other views, well, I don’t go to Tiger Woods for marriage advice but he can sure help with that nasty hook.

          1. Yeah, he actually had some Little Borther linked projects on Instructables, too. I also like that he gives his stuff away for free, because I’ll never give him a dime after that stupid fucking op-ed he wrote about making Google a public utility.

            But what was it somone said upthread? Power-fellating shitheel? Not precisely accurate, but close enough for Doctorow.

          2. Little Brother was OK.

        2. I can’t abide his long form fiction, with Little Brother being the only exception. I want to love his ideas, but his characters leave me rooting they get shot in the face.

        3. hi cory

    4. Yep. He’s one of the main reasons I can only stand to visit “that site” every so often.

    5. Stopped reading BoingBoing after Doctorow let Xeni Jardin and others turn it into a nonstop Obama propaganda campaign during 2008.

  6. Wesley Crusher is an internet hero?


    1. Wil Wheaton is a smug son of a bitch. The only thing he’s accomplished is to support the anti-Bush rhetoric of the left and then clam the heck up like a good little lapdog once Team Blue got back in power.

      Aside from that, he hasn’t done shit for the internet or the nerd culture that adores him. He’s the Paris Hilton of geeks.

      1. well, he guest starred in The Guild, that has to mean something.

        1. True. He played himself. That is, he played a nerd who is also a huge asshole.

  7. In Prometheus, somebody wrote a pretty funny review of a fictional sequel to Atlas Shrugged written by Cory Doctorow (and perhaps Charles Stross?). It was a totalitarian future but with STRONG CRYPTO!

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