BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Teenage hacker Marcus Yallow takes on the Department of Homeland Security after being falsely connected with a terrorist attack.
PROS: Gripping story; conveys the coolness of technology; thought-provoking issues about surveillance and freedom.
CONS: Story periodically stops for infodumps although, to be fair, they are necessary and entertaining.
BOTTOM LINE: A captivating book for readers of any age.
Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is being met with lots of praise, and I was curious to see if it was justified. I went in with a little skepticism, but I have to say, this book quickly won me over. What I find interesting, though not surprising, is that the book is being marketed as young adult fiction yet it is easily as entertaining for adults.
And why wouldn’t it be marketed as YA? It features a young protagonist who meets with some serious rites of passage. Marcus Yallow is a tech-savvy teen who is engaged in the latest trendy game, one that combines computers and reality. (Marcus is known online as Winston, or W1n5t0n in leet speak.) While playing this game in the streets of San Francisco, terrorists attack the Bay Bridge and Marcus and his friends are quickly caught up in the net of a near-totalitarian Department of Homeland Security. The teens are imprisoned, treated like criminals, then eventually let go. Marcus takes it upon himself to take down the DHS using some quite enterprising uses of current and near-future technology.
It should be expected by this plot alone (and not just by Doctorow’s activism) that the book will touch upon some political issues. This was my major reason for doubting the book’s hype. Politics is a major sf story killer for me. But to his credit, Doctorow weaves a captivating story that raises serious political issues without hitting you over the head with the hammer of civil liberty. The issues of privacy and government control are main focal points of the book and are every bit as though-provoking as they should be. And the realistic portrayal of the obviously Orwellian surveillance society (hence the book’s title) is well done.
The character of Marcus, meanwhile, goes on to become an online poster child for rebellion. But is Marcus really a hero? At first, Marcus’s motive is to help his friend Daryl, who hasn’t been seen since the attack and abduction. But eventually, the power Marcus wields seems to get the better of him when he seems to retaliate simply because he can. He also seems to be swayed at times by a love interest who also appears to enjoy the power, or at least being close to it. The important thing about Marcus’ portrayal is that he stands up for his beliefs and that, I think, is a great message.
Politics aside, Doctorow also weaves in tons of present and near-future cool tech. He’s on familiar ground, of course, and his passion is evident and even contagious. Doctorow never talks down to anyone who might not otherwise be familiar with technology. His no-nonsense descriptions of tech will be easy for even luddites to grasp. But that’s also where, for some, a potential downside appears. This book has so much going for it that it hardly seems worthwhile calling attention to it – but the breakneck speed of the story periodically comes to a halt to dump technical information. The good news is that the infodumps are entertaining in their own right and even educational (Here’s how public/private key encryption works! Here’s how RFID works! Here’s how to hack the next-gen X-Box into a surveillance-free network!), so they are hardly a serious detriment to the overall quality of the story.
So where does all this leave the book? Adults will like it for the thought-provoking topical issues and the insight into the minds of today’s tech-savvy youth. The youth vs. adults angle is sure to attract teen readers, who will love the book for its rebellious themes. Hackers and techies will love it for the frequent applications of technologies and glimpses at where they might be headed. SF fans (and conspiracy theorists) will love it for the extrapolation of receding civil liberties and privacy issues. In short, this is a book with widespread appeal, regardless of age and background. I would also offer this book as a great candidate to get teens hooked on science fiction. But don’t take my word for it. Doctorow has made the book available as a free download.