Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cory Doctorow - Little Brother

Cory Doctorow, Little Brother, HarperVoyager, 2008.

Also available as a free download, under Creative Commons licence.

Spoiler warning!

This book is both a novel and an ideological manifesto, and this is a good thing. The two aspects are well-balanced, the ideology is relevant to the story and the story is a reasonably well-conceived depiction of a situation where the ideology would be relevant.

This is the story of seventeen-year-old Marcus, a high school student from San Francisco, who is arrested, along with his friends, by the Department of Homeland Security, following a major terrorist attack. After being questioned for a few days, he is released and told he must never tell anyone about his arrest. He meets up with two of his friends, and discovers that the third friend is still being held.

Marcus returns to his parents and school in a changed city. Surveillance is everywhere, and Marcus makes it his mission in life to undermine the infringements of freedom that are being imposed on the population. As a geek with hacking experience, he is able to establish an underground wireless network and to motivate the city's young people to create chaos in the tracking systems.

The story is aimed, at least partly, at young readers (what is now called a YA novel, though "young adult" seems to me just as patronizing as other terms). It seems to me to suit this audience, thanks to the young protagonist and simple narrative style. The writing style also seems to reflect the speech style of a young, not very linguistically talented, narrator.

The story focuses on the main character and his life in his city, and does not refer much to what is happening in the rest of the country and the world. The terrorist attack, destroying the Bay Bridge and killing over 4,000 people, is horrific, but it seems to be relegated to background instead of featuring as a factor in the lives of people in the city. Marcus notes that everyone knew someone who was killed, but doesn't say who he had lost or how people were dealing with PTSD. As a reader who lives in a country that suffers from (smaller) terrorist attacks, I think the portrayal of how SF reacts to such an attack is lacking. Life seems to return to normal too quickly. Again, this may be attributable to the self-centered focus of the young hero, and to the main topic of the story being the infringements of freedom rather than the attack itself.

There are sections when the narrator explains the technology he uses. While not all readers will follow the details, the explanations attempt to show what the uses and implications are. I particularly appreciated the description of the "paradox of the false positive" (p. 120-121), which seems to explain many popular misunderstandings of statistics.

Other sections explain the ideology of freedom and privacy. Marcus quotes a section of the Declaration of Independence, which describes the sort of justified civil disobedience he initiates. This sort of civil disobedience is considered justified since it is trying to protect the state itself from the misuse of state power. Readers seriously interested in issues of freedom of information and privacy can learn a lot from Doctorow's non-fiction work, including his blog.

The story's ending is somewhat less than satisfying, but in some ways this is more realistic. Despite the movement's slogan, "Don't trust anyone over 25", Marcus is only able to resolve some of his problems with the help of adults, including his parents and a journalist.

As a coming-of-age story, this novel follows the normal pattern: the young hero realizes the world isn't what he was led to expect; he uses his skills to change the world; he finds love.

What is particularly noticeable throughout is the great sincerity of the story telling. This gives the whole book a feeling of authenticity and vividness that is quite rare in many works that have been rewritten and edited to conform to readers' expectations. This is obviously a labour of love for the author, writing passionately about matters close to his heart.

I enjoyed this book, with its funny moments, its sincere narrative tone, its well-presented liberal ideology and its quirky geekiness. I recommend it to readers both young and older, especially those who are individualistic and open-minded.

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