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Publisher: Bluejack

September, 2008 : Review:

Review of Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother
By Cory Doctorow
Tor Teen (April 29, 2008)
ISBN: 0765319853

Cory Doctorow's latest novel gives us something that we don't see too often in science fiction these days—a near-future dystopia that's both realistic and well-written. All too often the ones we get tend towards extremes: either "disaster fantasies," where the plague or earthquake or volcano hits and everything goes downhill from there but for a lucky few; or cyber fantasies that are cool (if dystopic), but not very realistic to a computer-knowledgeable reader. Little Brother doesn't do this—it's a solid dystopic novel, where the world isn't really all that nice a place to live and our hero has to deal with it. It fits in well with Huxley's Brave New World, Zamiatin's We or Orwell's 1984, except that it maintains a more science fictional trope—the ultimate triumph of the dystopia isn't necessarily inevitable.

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—it's worth it.

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—students in the public school system are constantly monitored and controlled in the name of security and governmentally efficient education. But Marcus and his best friend Darryl are on top of this—they're good at "applied security research"—in other words, they've got lots of ways of fooling the relatively dumb automatic monitoring systems that the school inflicts on them, and they regularly run circles around the system. But they don't know how good they've got it.

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—in the wrong place at the wrong time—they're picked up by DHS and automatically labeled as troublemakers if not actual terrorists. As far as DHS is concerned, they have no rights and are treated not as arrested criminals, but as Guantanamo detainees. After a few days of this, they're cut loose with the admonition that they'll be watched from now on.

Or most of them are—Marcus's best friend Darryl isn't released with the rest, and once Marcus overcomes his initial shock over what happened, he decides to fight back. Using his talent with computers and the ability to think for himself, he starts small—getting a computer network operating that isn't monitored by the DHS "big brother." He moves from that to other ways of sidestepping the "security" measures, more as a means to protest the growing government control than to overthrow it. Government agents aren't far behind, but Marcus stays ahead, just barely.

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—Little Brother was written primarily for young adults (although it transitions pretty well to an adult audience). This means that it's shorter than most adult novels, and the character is relatively young. Marcus is 17, and that's a drawback—at that age, most people really haven't had a lot of opportunity to develop to the same extent as an adult. To top it off, Marcus is a serious geek (like so many of us) and so his life is largely limited to computers, gaming, and avoiding the attention of Authority. (And honestly, he probably has more of a life than most computer geeks at that age do). But even if it's true to life, once you add in the life experiences of a 17-year-old, the character isn't all that interesting.

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—by the end, you don't feel as if you've wasted your time.

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—a notable technology advocate and co-founder of (and thereby presumably someone who would be highly interested in such things)—reined in Marcus's "hackerness" significantly for the story. This is an important point, and a testament to the author's writing—anything more than token code-diving and it'd be boring (even to me, and I work in the computer industry). But he balances things out well—Little Brother is anything but boring. While Marcus continues to work with computers throughout the entire novel, only once does he do any real programming, and the reader is spared more than a cursory look at that part of Marcus's world.

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—bringing it up half a dozen times is overkill. I suppose in this way he's also emulating Heinlein, but RAH usually did it more smoothly.

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—or even if—Marcus is going to get away with tweaking Homeland Security's nose. And the stakes continue to build as the story moves forward. From tweaking their nose as a form of impotent revenge for his missing friend Darryl, Marcus moves to leading a city-wide wave of civil disobedience, actively trying to bring down the tyranny of the DHS.

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—it's not really up to the level of Orwell or Huxley, but few novels are. But without a doubt, it's very much worth reading. And even though you can download it for free from Doctorow's website, it's well worth buying a copy to add to your library.

Copyright © 2008, Aidan Flynn Gallagher. All Rights Reserved.

About Flynn Gallagher

I'm a hard-core science fiction fan from way back, with a particularly strong interest in biologically hard science fiction. In the real world, I'm a web-designer living in Kirkland.


Sep 2, 05:32 by IROSF
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