Review: Homeland

Homeland by Cory Doctorow is the sequel to Little Brother, and like its predecessor is not so much a novel as a manifesto for change, for a better world dominated by altruism and individuals, not money and corporations – a bottom-up rather than top-down society.

The book’s been on my to-read pile for a while (I find it hard to read fiction while I’m writing). I enjoyed Little Brother and was looking forward to finding out what happened next in Marcus Yallow’s life – and, indeed, I rattled through its 400-odd pages more quickly than I usually do. Partially, I suspect, because I’m already familiar with a great deal of the technology discussed in the book. Partially, too, because the plot is straightforward and fast-paced.

Where the plot does pause, it’s because Doctorow, through his protagonist Marcus, is climbing on a hobby horse. That sounds pejorative, I know, and I don’t really mean it that way. If you’re familiar with Boing Boing, the blog Doctorow and others write, you’ll know his obsession with cold-brew coffee: an obsession ascribed to Marcus in the book, who leaves no bean unturned in his quest to convert others to the technique – which is described in detail. Similarly, there’s enough technical detail in the book – accurate, not technobabble – to convert the reader to Marcus’s other obsessions, personal security and privacy.

This is the point of the book: to energise and activate its target teen audience (yes, it’s a YA book: deal with it). The plot serves to illustrate the problems and solutions Doctorow wants us to consider, and to adopt, from cold-brew coffee to secure forks of Android to fairer, freer elections.

That’s not to say the plot is irrelevant: it is staggeringly so. In the almost two years since publication its depiction of a militarised, out-of-control police has been shown utterly true in scenes across the United States. And given some of the events in the book it’s hard to believe Homeland was published before Edward Snowden’s revelations of the extent of government surveillance of our activities. Doctorow’s fears, sadly, are all too real.

Talking of reality, one early scene jarred. In a tent at Burning Man surrounded by a dust storm, Marcus chances upon some non-fictional characters: real people, making cameo appearances in the book. Perhaps the target teen audience would like that. Cynical old me found it twee and unnecessary, bordering on laughable. Thankfully any other cameos were disguised.

I enjoy Doctorow’s books: they’re readable, intelligent, and technologically literate. In Homeland he has an important message to communicate, and he communicates it well. But I have to say, no amount of persuasion will get me drinking coffee.

Back matters

Beside one of my bookcases lies the Pile of the Unread, from which I pluck the next book to devour (yes, I still read dead trees). I don’t chomp through them nearly quickly enough. I’ve just finished one, Robopocalypse by Daniel H Wilson, that’s been in the pile for a year or so.

This isn’t intended as a book review, but the long and short: the ideas in the book are scarily plausible — unsurprising from an author with a PhD in Robotics — but it took a while to hook me, as it flits between apparently unrelated characters a little too speedily for me early on. When the stories began to join up I became much more reluctant to put the book down.

The ending came as a minor surprise. Not for any plot-based reasons, but because I could still see a good twenty pages left in the book (this is the 2012 paperback edition from Simon and Schuster UK). I’m used to stories ending with one or two pages left, usually adverts for other books. Robopocalypse has full-on Extras: sadly no author’s commentary (I’d love to see this for some books), but a two-page Q&A and then an extract of Wilson’s next book, Amped.

I didn’t read the extract — after finishing a book I like to let the story settle rather than plough straight on into something new. I appreciate the tactic from a marketing perspective, even if I chose not to fall for it. Maybe I should adopt it.

The introduction to the extract made me laugh, for no other reason than it seemed to think it was in an ebook or a newspaper. It mentions Wilson’s “exciting new thriller, Amped, publishing in June of this year.” How very odd, I thought, to reference “this year” in a printed book, which might rest in a pile or on a shelf in a bookshop or library for years. If it were me in the publisher’s purple braces I’d write that sentence time-neutrally, to make it relevant and accurate for a reader at any time. Perhaps: “Read on for an extract of Daniel H. Wilson’s next exciting thriller, Amped, published in June 2012”.

It reminds me of the sign in the window of an empty office nearby, headed, “We are moving”. Must be a hell of a job, they’ve been moving for over a year.

I’m such a pedant.

The Q&A has a more unfortunate timing problem. One question starts: “Your book is being adapted for the screen by Steven Spielberg…” with an interesting answer. The next question: “When is the film out?” Answer: “It’s slated for Summer 2013”.

Oh dear. I don’t remember a film version appearing last summer. I went to Wikipedia: there’s a page for the book, obviously, with a section about the film adaptation (caution: the page has spoilers). The film had a cast, it had financing, it had a release date of April 2014, but in January 2013 Spielberg shelved it: the script wasn’t ready, and it was too expensive. Will it ever be made? My guess: no.

Forever, that edition of Robopocalypse ends with its excited author promoting a film that in all likelihood will never have existed.

In a sense, that’s culturally fascinating: a snapshot of Wilson’s expectations at time of publication, with a hint of an alternative future that never came to pass.

But mostly I want to tell the publisher how daft it makes them look.

Review: Comedy Rules

comedy-rules-coverPart-autobiography, part-tutorial, part-ramble, Comedy Rules: From the Cambridge Footlights to Yes, Prime Minister is Jonathan Lynn’s look back at his career in acting and directing and in particular in comedy writing, and it’s full of excellent advice for those aiming to succeed him. The rules of the title pepper the book — there are 150 in all, over 200 pages — and range from the relatively obvious to the insightful.

For example, rule 35: It is hazardous to your career to make sexist jokes about women. Not a surprise, though somehow it still needs repeating. And then by contrast a few pages later, rule 39: If a band — or film crew — laugh loudly at a joke, you should probably cut it. Because, he says, “the band will only laugh at any new line which is a variation of the original.” And then there’s rule 98: Beware a phone call from the Inland Revenue, even if it’s an invitation to lunch.

Despite the title, these aren’t so much rules as lightly educational anecdotes: lessons he’s learned over the years through sometimes bitter experience. We skip between the decades, from his student days to more recent times as a film director and screenwriter, and back. Every story is funny, enlightening and well told, and occasionally guest-starring comedy gods such as John Cleese or Steve Martin.

Quite possibly my favourite story follows rule 117: Try to resist if the Prime Minister wants to join your writing team. If you remember the cringeworthy “sketch” Margaret Thatcher wrote while PM featuring the two main characters from Yes, Prime Minister, you’ll know what this anecdote is about.

There’s poignancy too. Lynn describes working on the play Loot with Leonard Rossiter, a masterful comic actor but a perfectionist who could be difficult to deal with. The play was a huge success and they became friends, and then Rossiter died suddenly: in his dressing room, from an aneurism, during a performance. Lynn includes the eulogy he gave at the funeral.

Lynn’s one of the greats behind the camera of post-war British comedy, up there with Galton and Simpson, John Sullivan, Eric Sykes, Muir and Norden, and so on, and Comedy Rules is a fantastic memoir. Recommended.