By Cory Doctorow
Tor Teen (April 29, 2008)
Cory Doctorow's latest novel gives us something that we don't see too often in science fiction these days—
I'll admit that it took me a little longer to finish Little Brother than it probably took a lot of people. Like many novels, especially those aimed at a younger audience, it follows the classic plot line of having something bad happen that acts as a catalyst that shocks the main character out of an ordinary life into something extraordinary. The problem with what happens to Doctorow's character (and this is more a problem with me as a reader than with the novel) is that the events that form this catalyst are pretty disturbing to anyone who hasn't been happy with the erosion of civil liberties that we've seen in America since 9-11. Frankly, it pushes my buttons and may well push yours as well. But keep reading—
The novel is told from the point of view of Marcus Yallow, a 17-year-old high school student in San Francisco. Life isn't all that great—
When a massive terrorist attack occurs in the city, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) moves in and clamps down. Almost from the get-go, anyone who flouts the rules is automatically viewed as a terrorist and treated as such. When the attack happens, Marcus, Darryl, and several friends are skipping class downtown and—
Or most of them are—
Along the way, Marcus meets others who feel as he does, and using the pseudonym M1ck3y, he gets quite a following. Using the Bill of Rights as his watchword, he helps lead the city's youth in an effort to break the DHS hold on the city by scrambling monitoring equipment and forcing the government to crack down more, thereby forcing more people to resist. What he doesn't see, though, is that there are very few limits to what the government is willing to do to maintain control.
Now if you think this sounds a bit like the plot of a Heinlein juvenile, you'd be pretty much right on the money. Provided that RAH was still alive and tuned into the current youth culture, of course (remember, he wrote Space Cadet, The Door into Summer, Farmer in the Sky, and the others in the late '40s and '50s). In fact, Doctorow succeeds where so many others have failed in bringing that classic feel to the 21st century.
In many ways, this is not only a key to much of Little Brother's success, but also to many of its failures. Like the heroes of many early Heinlein yarns, Marcus isn't the well-rounded main character that you'll encounter in most modern novels. He's very smart and well-focused, with just the right skill set to achieve the ends he's aiming for, but not in such an abundance that it's a cakewalk. He's fighting an almost overwhelming force that is almost entirely "evil" in outlook, and yet is intelligent enough to learn from its mistakes so that it's a fearsome opponent. Although, in a move that will surprise most Heinlein aficionados, Marcus's love interest doesn't have red hair.
All of these things are building blocks for a good story, but because of this, Marcus feels a bit unsatisfying as a main character. Let's be fair about this, however—
However, along the way, Marcus does grow. He's still not the most well-rounded of characters at the end of the story, but along the way he learns very clearly that even when you're fighting the modern American version of Darth Vader, things aren't simply black and white. People end up on different sides in the struggle not because they're good or evil, but for a thousand different reasons: fear, intimidation, idealism, paranoia, self-interest, or because they're just trying to protect what they have. And so he does improve over the course of the novel—
One really good thing that Doctorow has done with Marcus is that he's trimmed down something that's one of the biggest aspects of the character's life, but which would be really boring to most people. Marcus is a hacker. Not necessarily the hard-core hacker out of Bulgaria or Russia that comes to mind when we think of the term these days, but still one who uses computers to subvert authority and get away with his own brand of "lawlessness." As such, he's pretty computer-savvy, and good with computer code. Doctorow—
But Marcus doesn't just hack computer code, he hacks the technology that the DHS uses to control the city. Spy cameras, tracking systems, computer networks, anything that the authorities use to control or spy on the city. And the things that he does aren't simply "wave-of-the-hand" cyberpunk pseudo-hacks, either. He uses a combination of common sense and real high-tech tricks to get around the DHS. For example, when he searches his room for hidden cameras, he doesn't build something out of James Bond or get handed some camera-detector out of Star Trek. Instead, while Marcus does build himself a tool, it's decidedly simple, but effective. Taking his cue from the fact that even a pinhead-sized spy-camera lens will be extraordinarily reflective, he uses the tube from a toilet-paper roll, connects a series of bright LEDs in a ring around it, and hooks them up to a battery. The tube gives him a directional view, and even a very small camera lens will reflect the light of the LEDs.
Sometimes, though, Doctorow does take Marcus's inventiveness too far. About half the time that he comes up with something new, the reader gets treated to a lump of exposition that's more infodump than smooth narrative. It doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen enough that it gets old.
Additionally, in his effort to justify Marcus's actions (which don't really need that much justification, at least for me), Doctorow sometimes gets a bit heavy-handed when talking about the civil rights violations. Now I certainly don't disagree with the sentiments personally, but occasionally it does feel as if the reader is being beaten around the head and shoulders with a libertarian club. As a reader, I know that DHS is running roughshod over the Bill of Rights. Mentioning that once or twice is fine—
But despite my quibbles about Marcus's character, and even with the occasional awkwardness or heavy-handed nature of the narrative, Little Brother is very much worth reading. It's a fast plot, continually turning and twisting, and you're never really sure from one page to the next how—
Little Brother has gotten a lot of press, especially from people who want to tell you that it's an important book to read. And honestly, in this day and age, when many of the civil rights that we've taken for granted for years are being steadily eroded, they're probably right. But quite apart from that, it's a good book. Not perfect—