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Monday, April 28, 2008

"Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow

Official Cory Doctorow Website
Official Little Brother Myspace
Order “Little Brother
Listen To An Excerpt
Read Reviews of “Little Brother” via SFFWorld + Strange Horizons

When I was a high school senior back in 1996, the world was a much different place. Security wasn’t something we ever thought about. I mean cameras, metal detectors, x-ray machines, security guards? Heck, our school couldn’t even afford air conditioning let alone any kind of security measures! And don’t get me started on how technologically deficient we were. Computers? The first time I touched a computer was when I was seventeen and it wasn’t to browse the Internet. Instead, I got the dull pleasure of learning DOS. Adding insult to injury, we actually had to use typewriters any time we needed to turn in a report or put together a resume. Cell phones? Never heard of them. Video games? I was still pounding away on my Gameboy and Super NES. MP3s? I thought a portable CD player was the most amazing device I had ever seen. Yep, the times have definitely changed and not necessarily for the better if Cory Doctorow’s new book “Little Brother” is any indication…

Taking place in the very near future, “Little Brother” follows the account of Marcus Yallow, an ordinary, tech-savvy, seventeen-year-old high school senior whose hobbies include Harajuku Fun Madness—a Japanese Alternate Reality Game (ARG)—LARPing (Live Action Role Playing), computer programming, building gizmos from everyday materials—a spy-cam detector using a toilet paper roll, a pinhole camera out of Legos, etc—and hacking. Of this last, Marcus takes particular pleasure in defeating his school’s security systems which includes gait-recognition cameras, Radio Frequency ID tags—arphids—and issued laptops that log your keystrokes, watches for suspicious keywords, and keeps track of the websites you visit. All in good fun :) Then, in the wake of the ‘worst terrorist attack ever committed on American soil’—the bombing of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge—everything changes. Marcus becomes identified as a potential terrorist threat by the Department of Homeland Security, his privacy violated; a second PATRIOT Act is passed; a new proactive enforcement program instituted where anyone can be detained for ‘nonstandard’ activity; his school becomes an outlet for propaganda rather than teaching; and to top it off, Marcus’ best friend is missing, either dead or a prisoner of the DHS.

So what would any ordinary, tech-savvy, seventeen-year-old high school senior do in this situation? He fights back using the tools that are available to him, namely his brains, his hacking abilities, and the righteousness of youth. What follows is a riveting battle for freedom involving everything from Xboxes, cryptography, rave parties, and camera phones to blogs, memes, Player vs. Player video games, and LARPing. In short, Cory Doctorow’sLittle Brother" is one of the best releases of the year and here’s why:

One, “Little Brother” is just incredibly timely. Even though the book is set in a future where gas is seven bucks a gallon and Microsoft is on their fourth videogame system—the Xbox Universal—almost everything utilized in “Little Brother” is stuff that‘s actually in use today. Gait-recognition cameras, The Onion Router, arphids, the Great Firewall of China, Fast Passes/FasTraks, ARGs, face-recognition robots, tunneling . . . its all real. Look it up on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me :) And then of course there’s the War on Terror, the loss of privacy, the definition of civil rights, national security, voting, and the corruption of American press. These are all issues happening right now. You just can’t get any timelier than that…

Secondly, “Little Brother” is smart. Part of it’s the subject matter, but really Cory just knows what he’s talking about. He’s done the research, he’s knowledgeable in many of the related areas—according to his bio Cory is an activist, a teacher, a public speaker and a technology expert—and the book is just intelligently written including a clever plot, believable characters & dialogue, and a lot of fascinating info-dumping. In fact, one of my favorite aspects about the book was the stuff it teaches. Not familiar with ARGS, LARPing, the history of ciphers, Bayesian math, Yippies, tunneling, et cetera? Don’t worry, by the time you finish reading “Little Brother” you will be :)

Then there’s the character of Marcus Yallow. Written in the first-person, Cory does an amazing job of realistically capturing the voice and personality of a seventeen-year-old hacker. From the slang he uses to his choice of similes, metaphors and references—Astro Boy, Castle Wolfenstein, Sailor Moon, Alan Turing, Jon Postel and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road—his knowledge of all things computer & cyberspace-related, and the emotional rollercoaster that he goes through including feelings of indignation, betrayal, guilt and horniness; it’s like a teenager actually wrote “Little Brother” instead of the thirty-six year old Cory Doctorow ;)

Fourthly, the book doesn’t pull any punches. So even though “Little Brother” is a Young Adult novel—Cory’s first by the way—the author keeps things real. For instance, Marcus doesn’t just talk like a seventeen-year-old, he acts like one including ditching class, drinking, and having sex. Even more authentic is how Marcus eventually turns to his parents and other adults for help—after all, there’s only so much a group of teenagers can do—and how he was held accountable in the end for his actions since he does break a few laws ;) The thing that really stood out for me though was the DHS’ treatment of innocent people—involving psychological & physical torture—which is frankly a little bit frightening considering how believable it all is :(

Lastly, “Little Brother” is just a lot of fun to read and that’s the book’s most important quality. Because no matter how relevant, smart, or plausible a novel may be, it just wouldn’t be as memorable or provocative if it wasn’t also entertaining. That’s what makes “Little Brother” special. It’s timely, smart, relatable, realistic, thought-provoking and fun, and that’s why I strongly believe that readers will be talking about Cory Doctorow’s novel for a very long time. I know I will be…


Unknown said...

Nice review. I'm buying this book asap.

Harry Markov said...

This is definitely a novel that must be read. I was very reluctant of children taht seem to be extra ordinary gifted with intelligence and technical skills, but in my time I have come across mainly on articles about such genous individuals with such skill. It's believable and captures the beat opf our own times. Thank you for the review.

heather (errantdreams) said...

Until those last couple of paragraphs of your review I was thinking, 'yeah, but is it really heavy-handed about its obvious message?' I've never been fond of books that are so intent on getting their message across that they fail to be fun to read. Having read those last bits, though, it sounds like that isn't a worry with this one.

Which is more than I can say for the book I'm reading right now (*sigh*).

Back when I was in highschool we didn't have security either. None. Nada. It's hard for me to imagine. We had a typing class, but since my mom was a computer programmer I actually got to do my homework by computer instead of typewriter. That said, my memory of computer games is of the TI-994A, with its big cartridges and absolute lack of save games.

RobB said...

Nice review Robert, glad to see you enjoyed as much as I did.

Jen said...

I really enjoyed your review - usually I would pass a "guy" book like this right on by - but in this case I will definently be taking a closer look.
~butterflynymph of

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Been looking forward to this one for a while :) Nice review!

Robert said...

Thanks everyone for the comments! I hope everyone who hasn't read Little Brother yet gives it a try. I think you'll be happy that you did :D

Anonymous said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read this blog. Thank you for it. I like such themes and anything that is connected to this matter. I would like to read a bit more soon.

Anonymous said...

It was rather interesting for me to read the blog. Thanx for it. I like such topics and anything connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.

Kernos said...

IMO, this is the most important fiction I have read this century. Calling it a sequel to 1984 is right on. I have sent copies to all 6 of my grandkids. And, I just discovered that its sequel Homeland will be released in early Feb 2013.


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