Wednesday, November 25, 2009

REVIEW: Little Brother

Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother
382 pages -- 0765319853

Thirty second summary: After San Francisco is attacked by terrorists, made into a police state, and written off by the rest of the country, seventeen-year-old Marcus and his friends find themselves in a fight for their lives against the Department of Homeland Security.

So there I was, friends, at the library, when I stumbled upon a book that looked fairly awesome. Teenagers in sneakers? Check. Binary code everywhere? Check. A ringing author endorsement… from Neil Gaiman? Check and check.

Perfect! Better take it home!

I’m not going to lie to you – I finished Little Brother, read the last of the author’s notes, looked at the book for a minute or two, and then flipped to the front and started it over again. Partly, it was just that good. Partly, I wanted to give it a second read-through with Google on standby, helping me with any technobabble I didn’t quite get the first time around. Equal parts futuristic what-if and present day warning (with, you know, some fun and dancing and swearing and sex thrown in), you’re going to end the book convinced that your laptop is being monitored for anti-government sentiment, that your bus card is being tracked for suspicious activity, that pinhole cameras are eeeverywhere, and that at any moment your basic civil rights are going to be swept away from you in a flurry of “for the greater good”ness. Some of you may *already* feel this way, but that’s… a discussion for another post.

This isn’t going to come as a shock to anyone who takes more than a cursory glance at the book, but the adults in Little Brother are the Bad Guys. The sixties’ shout of “Don’t trust anyone over 30” has been pared down to “Don’t trust anyone over 25.” Good to know I still sneak in under the wire, I suppose! Marcus’ parents are useless at best (and dangerous at worst), blindly accepting martial law and the restrictions that come with it, and the only helpful teachers and reporters are helpless against the onslaught of the US Government. The teens take the ineffectiveness of their authority figures in stride, though, and go on to try and save their city without any help or supervision.

This isn’t a happy-go-lucky, Let’s Change The World kind of book. Marcus and his friends may eventually come out on top, but there are serious costs. His life is thrown upside down and turned inside out. His kidnapped-and-rescued friends are PTSDing. His trust in his parents, his government, and the world at large is shattered. People are betrayed and captured and tortured, and in the end, no one is actually punished. Grr.

The big issue in Little Brother boils down to this: Is it worth trading your privacy for the illusion of security? Marcus spends the entirety of the book fighting to prove that it’s not – facing both the anger of Homeland Security (whose creepiness factor is cranked up to eleven) and the “awesomely serene” blindness of his parents and other adults. Regardless of your opinion on the issue, you’ll be rooting for him by the end too.

(As an aside, Little Brother has the added bonus of being one of the geekiest books I’ve read in a long time. Half of it went right past me – I’m techy, but not *that* techy, and I’d never even heard of things like Bayesian math. I was so relieved, though, when Marcus went about explaining public and private keys to me in a way that I could actually understand – Now, at last, I can read xkcd without feeling like I’m completely in over my head! Thanks Mr. Doctorow!)

So go out and read Little Brother, friends. Or, better yet, download a copy for free. Do it now… and prepare to get paranoid.

Quotes of Note:

Why did we have cameras in our classroom now? Terrorists. Of course. Because by blowing up a bridge, terrorists had indicated that schools were next. Somehow that was the conclusion that the Board had reached anyway. (p. 92)

“My name is Trudy Doo and you’re an idiot if you trust me. I’m thirty-two and it’s too late for me. I’m lost. I’m stuck in the old way of thinking. I still take my freedom for granted and let other people take it away from me. You’re the first generation to grow up in Gulag America, and you know what your freedom is worth to the last goddamned cent!” (p. 191)

“Do you know what waterboarding is, M1k3y?” Her voice reeled me in. “You get strapped down like this, and we pour water over your nose and down your mouth. You can’t suppress the gag reflex. They call it a simulated execution, and from what I can tell from this side of the room, that’s a fair assessment. You won’t be able to fight the feeling that you’re dying.” (p. 344)

Tasty Rating: !!!!!

If you thought this was delicious, try:

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Forget privacy versus protection – what if we chose comfort and television entertainment over human lives?

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