Book Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

(WARNING: It’s difficult to talk about the book without spoilers, so if you’re planning on reading it, you may wish to skip this. In general, though, my opinion is: lukewarm-minus.)

Marcus, a.k.a “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works–and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.

But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they’re mercilessly interrogated for days.

When the DHS finally releases them, Marcus discovers that his city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: to take down the DHS himself.

That’s the cover blurb for Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a new Young Adult fiction release that seeks to be a warning and a manifesto of sorts to a new, savvy generation of kids growing up in a post-9/11 country that equates fear with security.

For a young adult book, it’s pretty gutsy. (I guess. I haven’t read much current YA fiction, and in fact didn’t read much when I was a Young Adult, so I could be completely wrong.) There’s cussin’ and sex and underage drinking a-plenty. Oh, and the U.S. government is portrayed as an amoral criminal organization that imprisons and tortures its own citizens.

To fight back against the DHS, Marcus and his friends use all the tools at their disposal, which becomes a method for Doctorow to explain a lot of technology, history, and hackery. The central message of the book is that we have the tools to rebel in the name of freedom, which is what Marcus does.

Except: we don’t. Marcus has at his disposal tools that simply don’t exist for any of us. Despite the fact that the DHS has the city locked down and is tracking people via RFID tags, the kids can easily buy RFID readers and writers from Radio Shack! When the Internet becomes unsafe, it turns out that Microsoft — Microsoft! — has literally given out thousands of free X-boxes that can connect to the Internet! And there’s a Linux distro called ParanoidLinux that not only can easily be run on these X-boxes, but can form an encrypted sub-net called X-net that the rebels can use to communicate with! And not only that, his good friend just happens to be the head programmer for San Francisco’s largest ISP, so he can introduce various hacks into their system to cover up the X-net. And not only that, his parents know a big-name investigative reporter! And not only THAT…

Yeah, there are a lot of coincidences in the book that severely undermine the whole DIY Revolution nature of it. Marcus doesn’t succeed through his own devices but through the devices helpfully provided for him by Cory Doctorow. He’s also helped by the fact that the Bad Guys are pathetically, mindlessly stupid. He’s told by the bad guys at the beginning when he’s released that they will be watching him, but the fact that nothing he does sets off any alarm bells for anyone is just preposterous. (“What’s the kid we’re watching doing?” “Nothing suspicious, just standing on a street corner handing out DVDs to people.”)

Combine all of that with an ending that is just jaw-droppingly awful (it really is as though there was an editorially dictated page limit and Doctorow realized he was getting close to it) and you have a book that wants very hard to be up there with 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 but is hampered by the fact that it’s just not very good. Its musings on freedom and security are almost completely overshadowed by its hacker wankery, where it is only through open source technology that we can remain free. Even the idea of rising up against oppression with the weapons you have at hand is lost thanks to the vast arsenal of made-up weapons provided by the author.

I can’t imagine anyone reading Little Brother and walking away with the same feeling as with 1984 (it may not be fair to compare the two, but hey, it’s not like the comparison isn’t right there.) The message of 1984 is that if this society gets started, it will not be easy to stop, so we must do what we can to guard against it. The message of Little Brother is, “Actually, it’ll be pretty easy to stop.” And in fact it’ll be hella-k3wl and we’ll do it with our X-boxes and cell phones and viral videos PWND MINITRUE.

And lest you say, “Well duh, it’s a YA novel and you’re not a Young Adult,” I’d like to point out that luminaries such as Patrick Neilsen Hayden, Neil Gaiman, and Tim O’Reilly give it glowing reviews, and they’re not Young Adults, either. They’re also pretty smart cookies, so yeah, maybe it is just me (though this review pretty much echoes my own. Or mine, it. Either way, we have the same complaints.) As I promised, I am passing my copy on to Anna, so I’m curious to see her take on it.

(A copy of Little Brother was provided for this review by Patrick Nielsen Hayden.)

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3 Responses to Book Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

  1. Pingback: Dave Ex Machina - A Thousand Points of Articulation » May Reading

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  3. Kurt says:

    I just read it and I can’t agree with you.

    Firstly, a lot of the tech actually does exist. Onion routing is real. Of course tunneling and crypto is real too. Even paranoid linux distros exist as well as other networks. I figured he was basing xnet on one of two existing networks that are parallel to TCP/IP. One is the nintendo DS and the other is OLPC. Both of which have ways of hunting out others ‘of their kind’ and making a network. OLPC doesn’t even have to be hacked, it’s running linux now. The DS has a homebrew scene as well though. So if the central message is that we have the tools, then I’d agree with that message. The book isn’t an instructional manual, but the parallels to real technology aren’t a big leap.

    As to why they don’t notice him doing anything I thought that was pretty well explained. They don’t have the numbers to actually monitor people. It was mostly a bluff in the beginning. They had has machine bugged and they were probably going to ‘track’ him via all of the other electronic tracking systems already available (gait recognition, rfid, etc…) I was never under the impression that they meant that some guy in shades was going to follow him around.

    When I read your article it was like you were looking for something entirely different in the book than I was. I was thinking more ‘mission impossible’ the tv show (it takes a team) as opposed to the movie versions (1-man army). It doesn’t bother me that he has to rely on friends and family to help himself along. I also like how he evaluates the possible danger he puts his friends and family in when enlisting their help. Likewise I enjoyed how some of his friends evaluated the same thing.

    As to the ending, I thought it was pretty satisfying. Maybe it’s because I read a lot of YA, but I certainly didn’t expect a ‘1984’ or ‘Harrison Bergeron’ ending. Heck, Neal Stephenson could learn a thing or two about endings here.

    For me, I’d give it an A-.