Review: Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

littlebrotheruk

(Harper Voyager 2008: ISBN 978-0-00-728842-7)

(review first published on the now-demised Specusphere website, June 2009)

In this, his fifth novel, activist, blogger and prolific author Cory Doctorow continues his exploration of technology and freedom, complete with references to earlier works on similar themes, notably George Orwell’s 1984.

Marcus Yallow, 17, is a sharp kid.  He’s almost preternaturally tech-savvy, and has no qualms in using his electronics expertise to enable him to skip school classes, to participate in internet-assisted roleplaying, and to wreak revenge on the class bully. This subversive edge, in a school environment in which surveillance appears to be becoming more intrusive by the semester, has earned him an unhealthy reputation, with the school’s deputy principal suspecting Marcus (correctly, as it transpires) of being the disruptive web personality and hacker W1n5t0n – pronounced ‘Winston’, in a nod to Orwell’s 1984.  At the start of the book, Marcus is called to a meeting with the deputy principal – but Marcus/Winston can take the heat.

Thing is, though: there’s heat, and then there’s heat.  Marcus doesn’t realise it, but he’s about to go from the frying pan to the blast furnace. When he and a group of friends skip school to role-play, they find themselves on the streets of San Francisco when the city suffers a devastating terrorist attack; and the demeanour of Marcus and his friends is sufficiently unusual that they’re taken in for questioning by a paramilitary organisation. It seems Marcus has fallen foul of the Department of Homeland Security, and the DHS grows more paranoid by the day…

Marcus is mistreated by the systems which are supposed to protect him, and when he’s eventually released from questioning – with a warning that the Powers-that-Be will be keeping their ever-watchful eyes on him – he vows to himself that he’s not going to go meekly. He’s going to get even. And he’ll need all his tech abilities, and all of his street smarts, to stay one step ahead of the DHS.

There are places in Little Brother where I felt that Marcus, the character, had briefly been subsumed by the role of mouthpiece for one or other of Doctorow’s trenchant observations on power, technology, and freedom. Some of the interpersonal interactions between Marcus and his friends felt slightly forced (there’s a tiff that develops over some software coding, which seemed to me to be an exercise in simplistic character differentiation), but for the most part the dynamics ring true. There are times when the explication of technical detail overcomes the story – I was (I think) able to follow much of the trickery, but some of the intricacies of public-key encryption were a bit too labyrinthine for my tortured mind to navigate. Overall, though, the book makes comparatively little overt recourse to info-dump, and the storyline is certainly compelling enough that it hooks the reader’s attention. There are books I’ll take a month to finish: this wasn’t one of them.  It took two days, and I suspect it’s one of those books I’ll reread sometime in the not-too-distant future.

It was an almost surreal experience to be reading this book as the events concerning the Iranian election began to unfold. So many of Doctorow’s observations, and so much of the book’s content, is likely to carry added resonance when compared to recent real-world happenings. In fact, it’s an almost eerie juxtaposition. Because the world of Little Brother is a world in which instant messaging and mobile phones become part of the arsenal of rebellion.  A world where the Powers-that-Be demand obeisance in the name of public order, and where those powers appear very much to hold the whip hand. A world where even the simple act of quietly voicing dissent can be dangerous, even deadly. It’s to the author’s credit that he gets the tone and the pacing right in so many respects, crafting an ending to his story which is both satisfying and credible.

Little Brother is both personal and political.  It’s also eminently readable. Finally, it’s excellent ammunition to bring to bear on anyone who voices the opinion that SF is mere escapism.

Cory Doctorow can be found at http://craphound.com/ as well on his famous blog: http://boingboing.net/.

 

(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2009)

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