Little Brother – Cory Doctorow

What is this book? This Cory Doctorow, who himself sounds like a sci-fi character? This funky cartoon on the cover? The tagline that promises a thrilling chronicle of techno-geek rebellion? Science fiction for young adults, for the modern generation, for the post September 11 world. Young hacker kids defying the US of A’s Department of Human Services, using Xboxes, cryptography and Linux.

Little Brother is a free book. As in, you can get it online, legal, no charge. Doctorow released it online in 2008 and it debuted at number 9 on the New York Times bestseller list (I’m not sure how that works, but…meh).

The premise is relevant and engaging. Marcus Yallow, a 17 year old high school kid who likes building gadgets, LARPing (Google it if you’re unfamiliar with the term) and tricking the school security system, is one day caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong place being wagging school, and the wrong time being in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on San Fran.

Marcus and his friends are swiftly intercepted by the DHS for suspicious behaviour. They’re imprisoned and interrogated for days. When Marcus emerges, their city has become a Big Brother-esque security jungle where no one is entitled to privacy. Cue massive teenage rebellion against the system and war cries of “This is not the America I believe in!”

Cory Doctorow clearly has an opinion on the matters of national surveillance and personal freedom; the story is pretty one sided when there was scope for deeper discussion. Nevertheless, when you take it as a partially didactic book it’s not hard to just sit back and enjoy the ride. I very much enjoyed the snippets of information about coding, Alan Turing, crypto, etc. They were accessible to the layperson.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the writing or the characterization. Clearly, Doctorow was more focused on getting a socio-political point across than creating believable, relatable characters…which is fair enough. But I found Marcus painfully stereotypical, Ange simplistic and pointless, Darryl and Van under-used. I wanted to see more of Van and less of sweaty teenage groping.

The dialogue at best was emotional and at worst, cheesy. Same for the writing, but one thing I’ll say is that it keeps you turning pages. There were a couple of turns of phrase here and there that did impress me.

Finally, one thing that Doctorow did well was to capture the spirit of youth. As I read this book I found myself, strangely enough, identifying with many of the feelings and sentiments and experiences that these kids described. I suppose, being smack bang in the middle of Generation Y, I am the generation of the Cory Doctorow kids. I am the target audience. Lots of geek-chic things to love about this book: toxic amounts of coffee, Mexican take-out, Harajuku Fun Madness, mobs of teens dressed as vampire goths, hacking, dyed hair, open air music concerts.

Still, I don’t think this book is aimed at young adults alone. It’s worth a read if you’re looking for something easy, exciting and informative. You’ll learn a bit about technology. It will make you think about how much you value security, and how much you value privacy. And after all, that’s what science fiction is supposed to do — make you think about…what if.

Artwork by Richard Wilkinson @ http://www.richard-wilkinson.com/2009/03/23/little-brother-deluxe-edition/

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