Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I found it initially hard to get into this book. The opening chapters felt a little too much like a direct rip from the last few chapters of Orwell’s 1985, and are not the most pleasant things to read. In a way of course, this is a good thing. The treatment of Marcus and the behavior of both his school and DHS genuinely angered me, and set me up emotionally to want to see Marcus succeed in his revenge.
And after Marcus actually starts to get into his plan, sets up xnet, things start to gather pace, and from that moment om the book was impossible to put down.
The book goes into quite a bit of technical exposition explaining various concepts to the reader in almost a “fourth-wall” break with the reader. I understand why these need to be in there, and they where not too in-depth to confuse, but they do take you out of the action sometimes, and interrupt the flow here and there.
I felt a little here and there that Cory (the Author) would think of a cool plot device to use, but then realize that he had not built up the foundational backstory to support that plot point. he would then insert it right there and then, as a flashback or as a bit of outside exposition. The best example of this is the sudden retelling of the history of the vampire LARPing, and the bizarre inclusion of Charles, to set him up as some kind of comic-relief villain. I felt this didn’t work well at all, and while I our initial introduction to Charles sets up the character in a interesting way, he feels a little bit too stereotypical. Almost like a character from Happy Potter.
In fact I feel that way about a lot of the characters. Marcus’ father, his school authority figures, the sub-teacher, Charles, and the entire DHS cast seem a little too one-dimensional to be totally believable. The Marsha character especially so, who, again, seems to have been included only to enable the escape arc. Only Marcus and Ange come across as plausible people, while other potentially very interesting characters like Van, Daryll, Zeb and Marcus’ mother remain chronically underexposed. A lot more could have been done there, I was especially disappointed with how little attention to Van was given, especially in the prologue.
As for the storyline itself, the lockdown that DHS (why always only DHS) manages to impose on the City seem rather extreme and unbelievable in places. Almost a little too simplistic and certainly too fast considering the timeline. (A space of a year). The story almost makes you think that people critical of the governments invasion of the private sphere, and the excessive security measures no longer exist. The ACLU for example, doesn’t make an appearance till the very end of the book, and while other protests are mentioned in passing, it is hard to believe that all these rapid and extreme changes could be implemented in such a short space of time without a massive social upheaval. Also the effects of the terrorist attack itself seem to take a serious backseat. of course the book is not about the terrorist attack itself, but one need only look at the immediate social after-effects of 9/11 to get an impression of the societal trauma that takes place after such an event. A felt this was somewhat missing from the story, and going into that a bit more, might have gone a bit towards making, for example, Marcus’ father a somewhat more believable character.
The tie-in to the 1960’s counter-culture and civil-rights movement,was obvious and necessary to give us context. And maybe I have the wrong impression of the US population, especially the Californian baby-boomer generation, but would this not be the exactly worst kind of population group to impose such as harsh lock-down on? You would think that of all states, and of all counties, it would be exactly this one who would still have the principles of 1968 firmly locked in memory. What I am saying is, I find it difficult to believe that the inhabitants of San Francisco would take all this lying down, as the book suggest. It would surely not only be the rebellious teenagers on the xnet who where organizing revolt in such a case.
But on the whole, the story itself appealed very much to me. As a sysadmin all the concept where familiar to me, and it was great to see some of the fundamental ideals and ideas of the “darknet” being given a good run through. After Marcus breaks the story to the press, you know exactly how it will all end, but that doesn’t make it any less rewarding to see him vindicated.
What appeals to be most about this book is that I was emotionally very engaged with it. I directly shared Marcus’ anger and despair at was going on, the same way I get angry when I read about copyright legislation, and what the TSA forces on people at US airports. Many of the sentiments expressed in the book are also my own, including my disdain for the attitude that many people have of just sticking their head in the sand over these issues, and the authority figures who revel in the power these laws and rules give them. All of this is unsurprising considering the author, who I admire and follow even outside his novel-writing.
Despite some of its flaws, this is going on the list as one of my favorite books.