Background: Cory Doctorow's Little Brother has been extensively reviewed in both the blogs and the mainstream press. The review that first made me interested enough to read the book was at Swarm of Beasts. I was actually intrigued enough by this book to a) purchase it (despite the many review books on my shelf); and b) take the hardcover with me on a trip. I'm not going to review it in detail, because I feel like everyone already knows about this book, but I did want to say a few things.
Book Discussion: Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, is set in a very near-term dystopia, one in which technological advances, combined with fears of terrorism, have combined to almost completely remove personal privacy. Teenager Marcus is a hacker, and a bit of a rebel. Together with three of his friends, he sneaks out of school for a couple of hours to track down a clue for an alternative reality game. While the four are out on the streets of San Francisco, a terrorist bombing occurs nearby. The teens are swept up by Homeland Security and taken to be questioned, and humiliated, at an undisclosed location. Three of the four, including Marcus, are released, but they are scarred, in hidden ways, by the experience. Marcus becomes a man on a mission - a mission to take on Homeland Security and gain justice for his lost friend. He becomes Little Brother, the antithesis of Big Brother, and he starts a movement among teens.
As Sheila Ruth pointed out at Wands and Worlds, this book "in a literary sense, it isn't very well written". There are lengthy passages with details about encryption, for example, which are likely to leave the average reader cold. I'm pretty tech-savvy, and some of it was still over my head. There's a tendency towards getting the adults involved when it's time to really solve problems. And (as Sheila again pointed out) the message is quite overt - something that I normally don't like in fiction. Doctorow clearly knows a lot about technology and electronic surveillance, and he has some serious concerns. He seems to have written this book not so much because he had a story that he wanted to tell, but because he had a message that he wanted to get across (about taking back our personal freedoms, and not letting fear drive us to give up privacy).
And yet ... for the most part, this book works. It is utterly terrifying. It made me seriously consider using some sort of software to make my browsing habits more anonymous. It made me wonder about all of the information that Google collects about its users every day. (And what I mostly do on the web is read about children's books - it's not like I have anything to hide.) It made me think. Little Brother is the kind of book that you want to give to other people, so that it can make them think, too. I read it in two sittings, because I had to know what happened to Marcus and his friends.
I still don't really think of Little Brother as conventional fiction - it's more like speculative non-fiction (what might happen if...), cloaked in a story. But I'm willing to give it a pass relative to my "message book" ban, because I think that this particular message, aimed at the particular young adult audience that it is, works in this format. My problem with most message books is that I think they turn kids off of reading. They insult kids by trying to tell them what to do, while pretending to tell them a story, and teach kids that fiction isn't fun. I think that Little Brother, though, is so technology and fact-based (as compared to just "you should do this because I think it's a good thing"-based) that kids won't feel tricked by it. They'll accept it for what it is - a way to talk about something that might happen, in an engaging enough fashion to get people to pay attention (it reminds me of Atlas Shrugged that way, actually, though Little Brother is a more immediately compelling story). And Marcus is an appealing narrator - he sounds like a teenager. He does make the book fun to read.
In summary, I recommend Little Brother for teens and adults. It's thought-provoking and suspenseful, and will make you think about the direction we're going in as a country. The San Francisco setting is detailed and authentic ("you can always spot the tourists, they're the ones who think CALIFORNIA = WARM and spend their San Francisco holidays freezing in shorts and T-shirts" and "only cops could double-park in the middle of Van Ness Street without getting towed by the schools of predatory tow operators that circled endlessly, ready to enforce San Francisco's incomprehensible parking regulations and collect a bounty for kidnapping your car). Even though this book was frightening, I'm glad that I read it.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.