I’m trying to categorize this book, and I have no idea what category to use: Young Adult (YA)? Scifi? Dystopia? Fantasy? Cyberpunk? Or there is this designation by author Scott Westerfeld: “a rousing tale of techno-geek rebellion.” The author himself calls it a “young adult novel,” but I think that might not be descriptive enough. Look at the nature of the accolates it has garnered: 2008 Hugo and Nebula nominations (SciFi); Sunburst nomination (science fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism, and surrealism); Locus nomination (scifi, fantasy and horror); White Pine Award (YA); Prometheus Award (“futurist”); and the Indienet Award (YA). I’m thinking I like the “futurist” designation, changed just a little to “futureish.”
Let’s get to what this much-awarded book is about, and maybe you can judge for yourself what category should be used.
The story is set somewhere in the next few years. Marcus Yallow is a senior at Cesar Chavez High in San Francisco. He is also a very talented computer geek and hacker, who goes by the handle w1n5t0n (pronounced “Winston”). He and his friends Darryl, Vanessa (Van), and Jose Luis (JoLu) have skipped school to get a leg up on an Alternate Reality computer game competition in which they play as a team. When multiple terrorist bombs strike the city, blowing up the Bay Bridge and the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), the teens are out on the streets, and thus in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), separated, and taken in for interrogation.
While being questioned, Marcus tries to be clever, but experiences one of those moments we all have that makes us wish for a rewind button: esprit d’escalier (e-SPREE des-kal-i-YE). This is when you think of great retorts too late to say them. (This French expression literally means “staircase wit,” indicating that a person thinks of that perfect retort on his or her way out of the room.) [Marcus tells us later that “the opposite of esprit d’escalier is the way that life’s embarrassments come back to haunt us even after they’re long past.” Yes! Isn’t that the truth!]
But the DHS doesn’t appreciate cleverness or non-cooperation, and Marcus is tortured, forced to sit around in his own urine and vomit, and deprived of food. He says:
“They’d taken everything from me. First my privacy, then my dignity. I’d been ready to sign anything. I would have signed a confession that said I’d assassinated Abraham Lincoln.”
Ultimately, Marcus is released along with Van and JoLu, but he refuses to lie low. He vows to get Darryl free, and “to bring down the entire DHS.” He says, “That was crazy, even I knew it. But it was what I planned to do. No question about it.”
Soon enough, Marcus, using encrypted communications, secretly forms a movement of “Little Brothers” who start documenting abuses by the DHS and the Government (“Big Brothers”). It’s hard to know whom to trust, though, and who might get him sent back to “Gitmo-by-the-Bay.”
One person he decides to trust is Ange Carvelli, a girl that tantalizes him with her aggressiveness. Another is “Zeb,” someone who escapes from the DHS prison and assures him Darryl is still alive. And importantly, there is Barbara Stratford, an investigator reporter for the free weekly newspaper, Bay Guardian.
But going against the government with all of its resources is not easy. It’s not only dangerous, but seems like a losing battle. Marcus can’t let himself give up: as the guest writer Andrew Huang says in the afterward:
“We win freedom by having the courage and the conviction to live every day freely and to act as a free society, no matter how great the threats are on the horizon.”
Discussion: A lot of space in the book is consumed by Marcus’s explanations of security systems, hacking, and cryptography. It probably isn’t necessary, but the passion for the material fits with Marcus’s personality, and at the same time helps to educate the reader on issues that we should be aware of as citizens in any event. But you can “zone out” of this part if you want, and not miss much.
There are a number of interesting philosophical issues that stem from the characters’ debates on the need to prevent terrorism versus the need to protect individual freedoms (and this is also the theme of the book in a nutshell). For example, Marcus’s father believes that if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t worry about government intrusion into your life; it is more important to catch terrorists. But Marcus counters: even if you don’t do anything illegal, isn’t privacy worth something? Marcus says: “It’s not about doing something shameful. … It’s about your life belonging to you.”
Some good aspects of the book: Marcus is charming (but not too much so) and his behavior and voice seem authentic for a seventeen-year-old. I loved way the author brought San Francisco to life in the story. I could picture the streets and buildings and parks from his smoothly integrated descriptions. I also loved the references and cites to actual books that Marcus was reading. Finally, I think the author does a great service by warning about the dangers to freedom posed by the threat of terrorism, which can be used to justify authoritarian policies.
The negative: there’s a lot about encryption, and if that’s not your thing, it could present a barrier to your enjoyment. (But again, you can safely skip it and it won’t hurt your understanding of the story.)
Published by Tor, 2008