Pages: 416 (Paperback)
Publisher: Tor Teen
Date: April 29, 2008
Cory Doctorow first came to my attention when I picked up a copy of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Its combination of absurdism and new paradigms in a realistic future setting hooked me on his writing, and I quickly came to be a semi-regular follower of Doctorow’s website, Boing Boing. He’s a huge believer in and supporter of the Creative Commons, and he puts his money where his mouth is – each of his books is available for free download, forever. That said, he still sells strong numbers, and has even increased his audience through this rather unorthodox approach. Lest this become a review of the man rather than the book, I’ll start talking about my favorite of all his works (so far): Little Brother.
Little Brother is a first-person novel told by the young, likable computer hacker Marcus Yallow (hacker tag w1n5t0n – a nice little nod to Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s Winston Smith). He, along with three friends (Darryl, Van, and Jolu) are cutting school to play an ARG (Alternate Reality Game), when they are caught up in a massive terrorist attack which destroys both the Bay Bridge and the BART tunnel linking San Francisco and Oakland. Thousands are dead, and Homeland Security sweeps in, detaining people indiscriminately, including Marcus and his friends. Marcus is so disturbed by the Homeland Security officers disregard for his basic rights, that he decides he has to fight back.
He does this through a series of actions and events that empower the young people of San Francisco, and teach him a lot about himself along the way. This is not a typical “teen rebelling against authority” tale; rather, Little Brother asks the same question that Alan Moore posed in his excellent comic book deconstructing heroes back in the 1980s, Watchmen: “Who will watch the watchmen?” Here, it is the title of the book that hints at the focus: it is our job, the regular people who care about their rights, to watch Big Brother and make sure he doesn’t take all of our rights away.
This is particularly relevant with the revelations of the last couple of years, with regards illegal wiretaps, extraordinary renditions, and most pertinently to the Snowden leaks and the NSA spying apparatus. Doctorow does not just say that people should protect their rights and fight for them through his characters – he shows just how to do it (granted, with technology that is already kind of getting dated six years after publication). Still, a lot of the advice is practical: how to protect your browsing, how to detect hidden cameras in a room (using a roll of toilet paper, no less), and the like – things that could almost be seen as a cool Sunday project for bored teenagers. The descriptions verge on info-dumping at times, but he manages to couch these sections within the story effectively for the most part.
As a novel aimed at a teen audience, Little Brother does provide the reader with several sympathetic characters through which they can access the story. Despite its heavy subject matter, the book never gets preachy, although some of the characters do with each other from time to time. This reads as normal friendships and relationships, however, as opposed to some omnipresent authorial voice dictating from above, something any sophisticated teen reader would see through in a second. Marcus is far from perfect; while he is the main protagonist, he makes a ton of mistakes, whether it be through his youthful hubris and well-developed sense of social injustice, or through his inability to understand the women in his life, but he seems to learn from these mistakes rather than repeating them. The female characters are very strong and independent in all cases, shaping the narrative and guiding Marcus, whether through antagonistic motivations or with a helping hand. The primary antagonist, a Homeland Security officer Marcus refers to as Severe Haircut Lady in lieu of her knowing her name (Carrie Johnson), represents all that is wrong with arbitrary power gone mad, while several other women act as guides alone the way. Doctorow’s even treatment of both sexes means simply that they are all treated as people, and are believably written for that.
While I do highly recommend this book for young readers, it should be noted that there are some pretty serious adult themes in the book, including the violence inherent in a book about a terrorist attack and its aftermath, but also including scenes of torture and dehumanization. There are scenes dealing with burgeoning teenage sexuality, but Doctorow handles these with a deft touch, and the sensitivity required to accurately show the sense of discovery and wonder people can have when entering new phases of their life in a positive manner. And despite the Tor Teen label on the spine, I feel that this book works just as well for adult readers – its lessons are relevant for all of us.
Steve’s Grade: A
Having taught this book for several semesters, I’ve found that it holds up very well over multiple readings, and is a timely and relevant commentary on the surveillance culture we’re all living in today. We should all be “little brothers,” lest Big Brother get a little too big.
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