Little Brother

May 11th, 2008

In several of the corners of the internet I habituate, this book is lighting things up right now, and it’s sort of obvious why.  Here we have a book that is technically science fiction, but set close enough to present day that it’s difficult to tell (much the same as Pattern Recognition was) and leveraging that immediacy of setting to maximal effect by having the political climate and conflicts that are of urgent importance right now still relevant to its characters’ viewpoints.  It’s a book that is deeply political, and a book that embraces somewhat complicated ideas about math and computers as necessary elements of its setting and plot, but one that is written to be accessible enough to be shelved with Young Adult fiction (which is where you’ll find it if you want to acquire a copy for purchase).  It’s a book that is very clearly anti-establishment, but it’s also very directly a book about being a patriot; and how combining those two things are not only disturbingly easy right now, but that the former may be a precondition for the latter.  I think it’s safe to say that it would be getting plenty of coverage on Boing Boing even if it wasn’t written by one of that site’s contributors.  It’s targeted directly at the interests of Slashdot readers, and the political leanings of sites like the Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light even if Patrick weren’t the editor.  More importantly, though, I just finished a reread of Cryptonomicon, and this seemed like the perfect chaser to that book’s heady nerd-porn-i-ness.  Very minor spoilers follow below the cut: Little Brother is the story of Marcus Yallow, a moderately rebellious young man growing up reasonably well off in San Francisco.  One of those kids who’s of that gifted-but-not-really-academic sort that is so easy to identify with for so many of us who are readers (and particularly SF/genre readers, I think, although as I mentioned this book’s genre elements are really pretty minimal).  He skips school one day to go play an ARG with his friends just like he has countless times before.  In order to do so, he has to circumvent a few of the tracking and monitoring schemes schools across the U.S. are implementing or about to implement, and in his doing so we get to see some of his talents and interests at work.  Once he gets out of school, though, he and his friends find themselves nearby when a 9/11 scale terrorist event occurs, and get caught up in the confusion (and the government crackdown) that immediately follow on its heels. The stories of the indignities that follow are brutally straightforward, and deeply disturbing; the moreso when one realizes that very little that is described is even remotely implausible.  Marcus does what anyone in that situation would do: he breaks, and capitulates to their demands, and is released…but once he’s released certain other circumstances cause him to resolve to fight against the government agency that did this to him and his friends. Using the technology that had previously been his playthings and hobby for childhood pranks, Marcus begins a campaign that steadily grows in influence, and does some of the requisite coming-of-age sort of things along the way also, of course.  The plot is gripping, with much of the tension that one might expect from a story of an underground movement or even a spy thriller, but reality is really barely stretched in any of the exploits and adventures described.  This is all thoroughly plausible stuff. Where it suffers, as where all of Doctorow’s books have suffered in my opinion, is in the “voice” of the characters.  The good guys talk like Cory Doctorow.  Now, I don’t think that’s a huge problem, since I’m sure to most people’s perception I probably sound pretty close to Doctorow when I’m blathering on about this stuff, but most people (and perhaps, particularly, most 17-year-olds) don’t talk like that.  You’ll note the “good guys” line above, and that’s one of the other issues I had when reading this, and that’s that the not-good guys are awfully close to being just flat bad guys, and I consider that to be a flaw.  It is, perhaps, a flaw so common to YA fiction that most of its readers would never notice or care, but I still see it as a problem. So.  Excusing those issues, I think this has the potential to be a massively Important book, which is a curse and a blessing.  It’s a curse because there’s a possibility that, when combined with Doctorow’s aforementioned (and, I think, very adult) “voice” it’s possible that this book’s target audience (the youth of the world and the U.S. in particular) might percieve it as being Important and a book that their elders might approve of and encourage them to read.  Anyone with any exposure to teenagers knows what an obstacle that can be.  The blessing is, ironically, obvious: this is an Important book that a certain class of adults will feel like the adolescents they know should be reading, and so it’s more likely to get purchased and be made available to that target audience.  And I guess I’ve sort given myself away in that last sentence, there, because that’s exactly how I feel about this book.  It’s massively important to me that people get the messages this book is trying to convey, particularly the generations coming into adulthood in a world that is so much more restrictive and surveilled in so many ways than the one that torturednurtured me into nerdy adulthood.  So I say go buy this book (or download it for free, like you can all of Doctorow’s books).  Then give it to a teen if you know one, or pass it to a friend.  It’s Important enough that it got me off my ass to write a review of it immediately, because how could I read that story and not feel like I should get involved even if only in this little way that I can.

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