Homeland picks up two years after the end of Little Brother. Marcus Yallow has mostly succeeded in avoiding trouble since his war against the Department of Homeland Security. He's finished high school, but had to drop out of college when the economy turned and his parents lost their jobs. The Yallows weren't the only ones. Even though Little Brother began with a terrorist attack on San Francisco, the United States of Homeland seems a darker place. The novel opens at Burning Man. Marcus has been planning to go for years and is enjoying the hell out of it with his girlfriend, Ange. During the festival, however, a former frenemy, Masha, pulls Marcus and Ange right back into their civil liberties fight when she hands over an USB filled with hundreds of thousands of explosive secrets. Masha is then kidnapped from Burning Man by the woman that waterboarded Marcus in Little Brother.
When Marcus and Ange return to San Francisco, they call in a few friends to help them figure out how to deal with the documents. There are photos and spreadsheets and memos and emails detailing projects that allow law enforcement, via private contractors and legal loopholes, to spy on and lie to the American people. Someone starts to leak the documents and the company featured in most of the documents, Zyz, doesn't let any moss grow in tacking Marcus down.
Meanwhile, Marcus has just landed a job as a webmaster/sys admin for an independent politician running for Senate (via an entertaining run in with Wil Wheaton and the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation at Burning Man*). At night, he horrifies himself going through what come to be known as the darknet docs. By day, he helps his candidate work out ways to use new social technology to garner votes.
With all the forces arrayed against Marcus and his friends and allies, there can't be a big victory. The book illustrates the tangled relationship between the government and its contractors. Those contractors aren't bound by the same laws and oversight and, as long as they don't get caught, it seems like they can get away with anything. I fear that Doctorow didn't have to use all that much imagination in this book; things like d0xxing, kettling, and UAVs (drones) actually exist.
I said (wrote) earlier that Homeland is darker than Little Brother. Little Brother was full of youthful anger and revolutionary spirit. Homeland is, I think, about the last painful lesson of adolescence: how far are you willing to compromise that anger and those ideals to get along in the big, bad world?
* The cameos were one of my favorite parts of this novel, partly because they all end up playing old school Dungeons and Dragons.