book review · science fiction

I’d like to start my review of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother with a disclosure. I haven’t read Young Adult novels before (nada, zippo, not one), but I can’t say it made the slightest difference: I wasn’t stopping here and there to remind myself, ‘okay, cut the author some slack, he’s writing for teenagers for God’s sake, so he can get away with this, or that gimmick.’ I just read it like any other novel, and found it a lot more interesting and thought-provoking than many of the adult level audience novels I more regularly read…(Speaking of which, what would happen if you crossed Cory Doctorow with Ian McEwan…?) [shudder]

The plot summary I’m going to crib from Chad Orzel:

Little Brother is the story of Marcus Yallow, a 17-year old in San Francisco who’s exactly the sort of protagonist you would expect to find in a YA book by Cory Doctorow. He’s an inveterate tinkerer, a talented hacker, someone who knows the ins and outs of computers and the Internet, and he has a strong anti-authoritarian streak. He knows how to subvert the security on the school’s computer network, and how to evade the surveillance systems they put in to keep kids from sneaking out. Which he does, anyway, with a few of his friends, to play an Alternate Reality Game called Harajuku Fun Madness.

They’re searching for a clue in downtown San Francisco at the exact moment when terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge. In the panic and chaos after the attack, Marcus and his friends are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and taken to a secret prison. Marcus is tortured into giving up the passwords to his personal electronic systems, and they read his email and all his secrets. They let him go, after dire threats of what will happen if he tells anyone where he was or what they did.

He returns home to find that one of his friends is missing, presumed dead, and the city is under the control of a surveillance state run wild. But when he discovers that they’ve bugged his personal laptop, he declares war on the DHS, and launches a campaign to bring them to their knees with XBoxes, hacked electronics, cryptography, flash mobs, and a whole armory of geek obsessions.

Pretty much, that’s it: but a lot of the fun and suspense of the book is exactly how Marcus goes about his work. And that kept me turning the pages.

Second disclosure: I’m not exactly in sympathy with all of the positions the author espouses; and it was an exercise in self-examination, as I read this romp about young revolutionary techno-geeks using every trick in the book to fight the agents of Homeland Security, to picture …well, where I would fit in the plot if I was the same age. It was none too edifying to realize I’d probably fall into one of three scenarios: the little bookworm who

  1. disappears, then upon release—realizes how naive’s he’s been about the way things are, is too terrified to do anything about it and just stays out of trouble, refusing to help (weasle);
  2. disappears, then is never heard of for weeks until he returns as a complete and nefarious tool of the dark side (and promptly gets his come-uppance)
  3. disappears, then upon release—realizes how naive’s he’s been about the way things are, and promptly gulps, signs up with the forces of light to do what he can (and immediately gets wasted in the very first crossfire).

All of which is a long-winded way of saying perhaps I’m not supposed to be enjoying this book. But I did.

Doctorow’s style: Chad mentions, for example, “…that there is not a subtle sentence in the entire book– the Important Message is hammered home as hard as any message has ever been hammered home.”

I don’t agree. Going back over some highlighted gems from my pages, I find little samples like this:

I don’t fold. I have a trick for staring down people like Benson. I look slightly to the left of their heads, and think about the lyrics to old Irish folk songs, the kind with three hundred verses. It makes me look perfectly composed and unworried. (p. 13)

I think every kid figures something like this out, and it clicked with me as soon as I read it. (Only difference, I would look to the right side of their heads, and start thinking about Richard II, Act 5, Scene 5, “I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world…”)

I like Marcus’s voice. Yes, he’s a smartass–but not a complete smartass. Doctorow manages to educate the reader on various aspects of encryption and programming without ever stepping outside of the kid’s natural tone. I don’t consider myself a programmer, but I’ve had do enough tinkering in the various multimedia programs and my own web sites, to appreciate why programmers love to code. Making computers do what you want is cool.

Some readers have complained about the ‘deus ex machina’ ending to the book (which I will not divulge), but again, I think this is not fair to the author, who sets up all of his plot twists with plenty of foreshadowing, so I read right to the end without a hiccup.

I found only one false note (or rather, one note that didn’t ring true at all for me). And that was the pitch to revive the ‘generation gap.’ At the first secret party to organize themselves, Ange stands out among the newbies and goes full throttle into a rant about the suspiciousness of anyone over age 25: “They forget what it’s like to be our age. To be the object of suspicion all the time! How many times have you gotten on the bus and had every person on it give you a look like you’d been gargling turds and skinning puppies?” (p. 166)

Okay, maybe Boston is different from San Francisco. Most of the time I see kids get on the T or buses with me, they’re not getting any looks at all. They get loud enough you’ll see every man and woman over 30 just keeping their head down and staring at the floor–too intimidated to say a word and just hoping they get off at the next stop.

Like I said, a minor caveat. And I’m well over 25 anyway, so don’t trust me.