Book Review: Little Brother

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Little Brother
By Cory Doctorow

My Edition:
Paperback, 380 pages
2008, Tor
ISBN: 9780765323118

Marcus and his three friends cut school early to play their favorite online/scavenger hunt game when the San Francisco Bay Bridge gets blown up in a terrorist attack. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, they’re picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and imprisoned for days. When Marcus is released under surveillance and warned never to speak of what he endured, the city is on lockdown and every citizen is treated as a potential threat. Bristling at the lack of their rights and freedoms, Marcus and other teenagers start an internet revolution to outsmart the technology of the DHS and take back their city. 

What I liked:
I want to apologize now – I have a million stickies in this book and there are a lot of things I’d like to discuss, but I also don’t want this review to be incredibly long, so I’ll try to keep my thoughts organized. Just in case I don’t though…sorry!

Doctorow’s writing immediately grabbed me – I really loved Marcus’ voice. He was very smart for his age, yet not overly so, as he made his fair share of mistakes. He’s very tech savvy too, but each time he introduces a new phrase or gadget to the reader, Marcus explains it in a way that makes sense (well…except cryptology) but doesn’t feel overbearing. There’s a lot of technology in this book and honestly, I’m sure more of it exists then I realize. Marcus talks about gait recognition cameras that monitor the way kids walk through hallways to try to match their gait to a personal profile and tracking devices in library books because the government wouldn’t authorize putting tracking devices on students themselves. There are school-issued laptops that record every keystroke and only allow access to sanctioned websites. Debit cards, subway passes and fast passes in cars track the daily movements of the citizens who use them, creating more profiles that can be monitored for “abnormalities.” There are truancy apps that adults can use to post photos of the kids when they’re out and about during the school day, and other crazy inventions that really set the tone and gave me a “big brother is watching” feel that I enjoyed. In fact, it made me a little paranoid about my current use of technology (so many books making me paranoid this year – a sign that I’m reading a lot of excellent writers!)

Doctorow clearly did a lot of research on technology and it shows in a positive way. I was engrossed in both the plot and the new technological developments being thrown my way. There’s also a large focus on freedom and what that means to residents of the United States. When the bomb goes off and the city goes into lockdown, a lot of personal freedoms are sacrificed for safety and the general message is that we should not have to give up privacy for safety or security.

When Marcus is first captured he’s in shock and comments on terrorist in a way that made me realize I’m of a similar mindset:

“I knew that in the abstract there were terrorist somewhere in the world, but they didn’t really represent any risk to me. There were millions of ways that the world could kill me – starting with getting run down by a drunk burning his way down Valencia – that were infinitely more likely and immediate than terrorist. Terrorist kill a lot fewer people than bathroom falls and accidental electrocutions. Worrying about them always struck me as about as usefully as worrying about getting hit by lightning.”

In the aftermath of this attack Marcus is questioned by the DHS as a possible terrorist himself and is told that “honest people don’t have anything to hide,” in keeping with the theme of sacrificing all personal privacy for the sake of stopping terrorism. There are a lot of great quotes on this subject, like “Imagine if someone locked you in the back of a police car and demanded that you prove that you’re not a terrorist.”

Doctorow also talks about freedom through Marcus and I enjoyed his perspective:

“I can’t go underground […] waiting for freedom to be handed to me. Freedom is something you have to take for yourself.”

“[…] no matter how unpredictable the future may be, we don’t win freedom through security systems, cryptography, interrogations and spot searches. We win freedom by having the courage and the conviction to live every day freely and act as a free society, no matter how great the threats are on the horizon.”

+ Vocabulary alert +
exfiltrate – withdraw (troops or spies) surreptitiously, especially from a dangerous position
yaw (rotation) – a movement around the yaw axis of a rigid body that changes the direction it is pointing, to the left or right of its direction of motion

What I didn’t like:
While Marcus made mistakes and couldn’t constantly outsmart the DHS, I do feel like he was a bit of an over-hero. Yes, I realize there are teenagers out there who understand technology the way Marcus does and there are creative hackers who can outsmart any system if they put their mind to it. But Marcus still felt a little too perfect. He did have help from some friends, both in real life and via the internet, so this is just me nitpicking.

I was also greatly confused by cryptology. That was a topic that Marcus brought up several times and in great detail. I understand it was part of his character; he was very interested in it and understood it well, so that showed. But at times I was reading paragraphs about public keys and private keys and formulas and I felt like my head was spinning. I had to skim through some sections because I just felt the level of detail Doctorow was giving wasn’t of interest to someone who has no background in crypto and I really wasn’t interested in learning all the Doctorow was trying to teach me. But there were only a few sections muddied down by crypto so it wasn’t something that annoyed me throughout the whole book.

~

Overall I really enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading the sequel, Homeland. I would recommend this for anyone who is into young adult books with a tech-savvy spin, as well as those who are into more modern dystopias, if you will.

If you’ve read Little Brother, let me know what you thought!

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