Thursday, August 21, 2008
Two versions of teens in [slightly] future America
The future of American society is the subject of two recent science fiction novels on government control and security: Nick Mamatas’ Under My Roof and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. In Doctorow’s novel the Department of Homeland Security now wields a fearsome amount of power on our home shores. For Mamatas the country is embroiled in an endless array of overseas wars to “protect America’s freedoms”. In each case young male protagonists find themselves caught up in events beyond their control and forced to make decisions about how they want to live and what sort of country they want to live in.
Doctorow has written the far more earnest book. There is little to laugh about in Little Brother and in fact the tension builds until a scene of torture where it is clear that the Constitution is long gone in place of a more dictatorial “freedom through security” approach. The plot focuses on Marcus, a teen who knows his way around computers big time and gets caught in a web thrown by local law enforcement in the minutes after a terrorist attack on San Francisco. Held against his will by the Dept of Homeland Security, he and his friends are terrorized by government interrogators only to be released after days of suffering and humiliation. Once free he soon learns that in an effort to keep the city safe, its residents are being tracked and traced in an untold number of ways. Marcus decides to fight back and much of the book follows his efforts as the unofficial leader of hundreds, if not thousands, of other teens who perform all manner of technological tricks to foil DHS’s efforts to control everyone through spying. What drives Marcus is the disappearance of his best friend Darryl who was lost the night of the attack and last seen injured and being taken into custody.
There are most certainly holes in Doctorow’s plot and more than a few moments where readers have to suspend their belief, not on the advanced technology he describes but in the character actions. There are no shades of grey here – the villains are really really bad guys who seem driven to imprison people for no good reason. While the Guantanamo parallels are obvious, these are American teenagers who don’t have criminal records and it all gets a bit hard to believe. There are also a few other plot points involving the missing Darryl and the collapse of Marcus's supposedly tight group of friends that seem to exist purely to keep Marcus moving in certain directions but do not stand up on their own. Doctorow is aiming high here in a way other than plot though; he wants a novel of big fearsome ideas to make his readers think. He suggests that just as we have allowed TSA to control us in lines at the airport, and DHS to craft the mother of all terrorism watch lists, and the President to build an honest to God gulag on foreign shores for the sole purpose of circumventing U.S. law – well, we also might someday let a lot of innocent Americans be alternately controlled and terrorized on a daily basis because the government says it is for the best. This is Doctorow's version of a future America and if he has to hit you over metaphorical head with his novel to get your attention, then really, that's what he's willing to do.
Clearly, the book is not perfect but it is a powerful thrill ride in which a group of smart teenagers are the only ones willing to stand up and take chances to make things right. In that respect, Doctorow has pulled off quite a coup; it’s not often that teens can be realistic heroes; they usually need magic, James Bondian gadgets or adult foils that are stratospherically stupid. Little Brother succeeds for its audience because in different way you can see parts of this book happening and when Marcus makes his stand you want him to succeed – even if his reasons for being in that position in the first place are a bit of a stretch.
In Under My Roof Herbert becomes an unwitting accomplice when his father, suffering from multiple frustrations, pops a cork and builds a small nuclear device which he then stores in a garden gnome for safe keeping. He declares their Long Island home as the new state of “Weinbergia” and henceforth independent from the U.S. What follows is the faxing of greetings and offers of peace with countries all over the world and discussions with the neighbors about the gnome and its trigger which Mr. Weinberg happily carries around. Soldiers soon show up at the door, along with the press, one of whom becomes a happy "hostage", and rather quickly a lot of other people who are fed up the country find their way to NY. They ask if they can "emigrate" to Weinbergia and soon Herbert is sharing the bathroom with a lot of people he doesn’t know and holding press conferences and very carefully mowing the lawn (where the gnome still resides).
As an added twist Herbert is telepathic and filled with the thoughts of everyone around him. The telepathy is not a distraction from the plot; it is part of what makes Herbert a very quirky protagonist and provides him with a chance to one up the adults. This ability is critical when a small group of Weingbergians make a midnight run to a nearby gas station to assuage some chocolaty cravings and things get ugly in an unexpected way.
Mamatas does an excellent balancing job in Under My Roof between the political story, which is all about Mr. Weinberg's very serious frustrations with how the government has been running the country, the domestic struggle Herbert faces as he is stuck between his separated parents. Slowly, he develops a growing awareness that people really do have the power to change the country. It is almost as if everyone has been saying and feeling and doing what the government wants for so long in his world that they’ve forgotten that it is all about them – every decision the government makes is to one degree or another all about them. (This would be an "aha" moment for all us.) Herbert gets this and in a slightly more off balance way, so does his father. Their relationship, which is where Mamatas enjoys some of his funnier moments, is key to the story’s success and manages to make this thoroughly off beat futuristic tale definitely relatable to present day coming-of-age stories.
In the end I think Mamatas has pulled off something wonderful with Herbert’s story; he gives readers a taut political SF thriller that manages to be equal parts suspenseful and humorous with a good dose of goofy family charm throw in. While Doctorow’s book has gained a lot of attention I think Under My Roof has flown under the radar but there is a lot of food for thought in this one and a much more realistic portrayal of America. You can't dismiss Mamatas as easily as Doctorow - his book lives in that grey region Little Brother so casually disregards and it is because of that level of realism that I think it is a more quietly powerful and substantive book. In short, Little Brother makes for edge of your seat reading to be sure, but Under My Roof is one that should not be missed.