Completed 6/21/2014, Reviewed 7/1/2014
While deep in the middle of my TBR list of 56 books, my partner showed me the library copy of “Little Brother” he just finished. He told me I needed to read it before he takes it back. I told him I was a little hesitant about Cory Doctorow because I had heard he wrote cyberpunk. He told me to ignore that and just read it. I did. Wow!
The setting is post-9/11 San Francisco. A teen hacker and a few of his friends cut class and head into the city to play an ARG, i.e., and Alternative Reality Game. Terrorists bomb one of the bridges and the teens are picked up as persons of interest. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, they are subject to severe interrogations. All but one are eventually released. They are threatened to never tell anyone what happened to them, then released. Once back, they realize just how much homeland security has its nose in almost every aspect of their lives. Marcus, the main character, decides he has to do something and starts a quiet revolution that spreads through the entire youth hacker/gamer community.
Doctorow’s not-so-young-adult novel shows us just how close we were/are to a totalitarian society, not unlike “1984”. He makes no bones about his fear of our giving up our rights for the sake of fighting terrorism. He covers a lot of very technical concepts related to the freedom versus surveillance of liberty and data, but does so with very readable prose for the less technical, and in a way that blends right into the first-person narration by Marcus. Where sometimes Orwell could get quite dry, Doctorow’s prose is very readable. It’s not overly literary; it’s raw and direct.
The character of Marcus is very well drawn. I’ve read some reviews criticizing how the supporting characters range from somewhat to very cardboard. However, I think it makes sense from the perspective of a teenager. For that matter, how many of us reduce those who threaten us to soul-less, unfeeling caricatures of real people. I don’t want to sound like I’m justifying weak characterization. I think in the context of the narrative, it makes a lot of sense.
I had the opportunity to see Cory Doctorow at our city’s Public Library. He gave a talk about many of the internet security issues he incorporated into this book. It was like getting a book report of “Little Brother” without mentioning any of the characters. Interestingly, I found myself less than enthralled by the lecture than I was by the novel. “Little Brother” presents the scary nature of internet security in the context of a very realistic scenario. It had more impact on me than his passionate delivery at the podium.
I had a tough time writing this review, finding it extremely difficult to articulate the experience I had reading the book. Even after many days of reflecting on it, I stumbled trying to quantify its positive qualities. So subjectively, I’ll summarize with this: This is an important and timely novel. It deals with concepts that I think we often relegate to the paranoid survivalists. It reminds us of the power of fear. And it inspires us to make the effort to make a difference. Five stars.