Don't Trust Anyone

You know how some things are much better when you combine them? Snowstorms are best with a fireplace, peanut butter is best with jelly, a good movie is best shared with a friend and long walks are best with either your iPod, your dog, your best friend or gorgeous scenery. (Said gorgeous scenery could be your best friend, I'm just saying.)

I inadvertently hit upon the perfect combination of books. Either of these alone is a chilling story of society going badly wrong but put them together and you've got a waking nightmare of fascism and freedom bartered for false security. I read them back to back and was profoundly disturbed, not just by the events in the books but because of how closely they mirror, or could mirror our culture. Jo Walton's Farthing is a detective story that takes place in 1949 in an England that has an uneasy peace with Hitler, while Cory Doctorow's Little Brother takes place in the near future, in San Francisco, during and after an attack that causes thousands of deaths.

Farthing

Farthing gets off to a slow start, in fact I considered giving up on it the day Little Brother came out because I was so eager to read Little Brother and nothing much seemed to be happening in Farthing. But because I'd heard such good things about the novel and had faith in the editor (who just so happens to have edited every one of my favorite books of the year for the last four years) I stuck it out, and it turned out to have one of the most diabolical plots I've ever read. Set in a castle in the English countryside this novel starts with the murder of a member of the aristocracy. The story is told from two points of view, that of Lucy Kahn who is visiting her parents, who own the castle and Inspector Peter Anthony Carmichael of Scotland Yard, who has been sent to the house to investigate the murder. Lucy is a self described scatterbrain who is married to a terribly clever chap called David, who is Jewish, which means they bump into bigotry and hatred every time they turn around. Carmichael is good at his job, a solid thinker who looks beyond contrived evidence. He's also hiding a secret that would land him in prison (at best) if anyone found out.

The two meet when Sir James Thirkie is murdered and Carmichael comes to Farthing to investigate. Sir James was influential in negotiating the peace treaty with Hitler, and when his body is discovered with a yellow star pinned to it Carmichael knows he's supposed to think that David is the obvious culprit. But when he interviews David he is convinced that David is far too smart to commit such a stupid crime and he investigates all leads and discrepancies. Meanwhile Lucy is doing her own bit to protect her husband and try and puzzle out what happened. Why this murder happened is just as important, if not more than, who did it and the answer is appalling and life changing.

Despite the fact that it is compelling reading and I didn't want to put it down, once I got into the meat of the story I had a hard time reading Farthing. I've always had an overactive imagination and I kept thinking of what it would mean if Hitler really had conquered all of Europe while America withdrew into her borders, which is essentially what happened in the alternate history leading up to this story, and I just couldn't bear it. It's impossible to miss the similarities to political climates and the intolerance and hate that certain religious and ethnic groups face today. You can read an excerpt here.

Little Brother

Marcus is a high school senior who lives in a slightly futuristic San Francisco. He has a knack for technology and a love of games that spill over into the real world. When the book opens he gets a message on his heavily modified laptop saying that a clue in a game he loves is hidden in a neighborhood in the city. If he skips out of school early he and his friends can investigate while everyone else is still stuck in class. He's got a couple of obstacles to pass, including gait recognition software in his school that will alert authorities that he is out of his class. Marcus has got plenty of tricks up his sleeve and he and his friend Darryl escape from school and meet up with another friend.

But when just as they're about to access their clue the ground starts to shake and Marcus' life changes forever. What first appears to be an earthquake turns out to be a series of bombings, starting with a bridge across the bay. Marcus and his friends follow directions and head to the BART station to safety underground but instead encounter a panic-stricken crowd crushing those who lose their balance and fall. The teenagers manage to turn around and make their way back up to the street but Darryl is badly injured and needs immediate medical attention. With the entire phone system not working, Marcus flags down a passing truck, begging for help for his injured friend. The truck stops but instead of help Marcus is blindfolded, cuffed and carted away to who knows where.

Stripped of his rights and thrown into "Gitmo-by-the-Bay" Marcus begins his new life as a suspected terrorist. Bright, resourceful and furious, once he's released he fights back by reprogramming and rebuilding ordinary electronics to disrupt the repressive new regime that Homeland Security puts in place. He proves how ridiculous many security measures are and how easy they are to subvert. It might be tempting to read the rest of the novel as a how to manual or a treatise on the trading of liberty for a false sense of security but the quick pace and strong plotting keep the reader immersed in the story.

As he always does, Cory is giving away electronic versions of the book and welcome remixes of the content. (And as always, if you like the free version of a book, feel free to buy a hard copy.) He also has a program set up where you can make a donation and get the book into libraries and schools with limited budgets, link found here. The blog for the book includes how to entries from Instructables that describe how to accomplish some of the hacks in the novel, including how to make a chili mister like the one that one of the characters uses to spice up her burritos.

Little Brother and Farthing are both important books and I think that their importance will really not be apparent for years. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see my grandchildren studying either one of these books in school.

One-Paragraph Review
This week's one-paragraph review is from Lord Shipe, who comments on a new film out in theaters saying, "Speed Racer was an epic movie. Anyone who is having any doubts should just go see it already." Do you have a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.