Thursday, January 08, 2009

Little Brother - Cory Doctorow

Note: I normally avoid spoilers, but I found it hard to review this book fully without them, so beware!

Within the blogosphere, Cory Doctorow is best known as the editor of Boingboing, and for his sterling work in campaigning against DRM and other insidious forms of copy-protection. Appropriately, it was on a lefty blog that I first heard of this novel, a paranoid-dystopian bit of near-future SF for young adults. Set in a San Francisco not many years from now, where CCTV (etc) monitoring has been gradually encroaching on all areas of society, teenager Marcus (online username w1n5t0n - geddit?) knows all the technical tricks for evading detection and sneaking out of school. However, while skiving off one morning, he and his friends get caught up in an awful terrorist attack, and are whisked away by Homeland Security for questioning. Brutalised and intimidated by the security forces, Marcus vows to break their stranglehold on the city, and starts to organise a resistance...

On the face of it, this seems like good, subversive stuff, if somewhat white and affluent (lucky Marcus, having all the latest gadgets with which he can thwart the government surveillance, and how terrible that middle-class kids should be treated as criminals!). The writing style isn't brilliant but the story is decent enough, as Marcus stays one step ahead of the authorities, defying his corrupt teachers and clueless parents, and navigating the pitfalls of betrayal and infiltration; my main criticism of the narrative would be all the technical detail that slowed the pace down. Doctorow is clearly trying to give a useful blueprint for tech rebellion at the same time as telling his story, and doubtless this is all very handy for people more paranoid and net-savvy than I, but if you have no personal inclination to start (eg) tunnelling your data then the extraneous detail is just slightly annoying, and liable to make the book date rather quickly. It also means that Little Brother is entirely out of reach to older and more technically-illiterate people; my mum, for example, could certainly benefit from a demonstration of the evils of government surveillance, and the similarities with the civil rights movement of the 60's, but there's no way she'd get through even half of this book.

This is a shame, because the final message of Little Brother is that the kids can only do so much; for all Marcus's (ultimately rather inept) scheming, the bad guys' machinations are only finally exposed with the help of the adults. Despite the "never trust anyone over 25!" rhetoric, it all seems to boil down to Good Kids defying Bad Grownups until the Good Grownups stop being oblivious and sort it all out; this is about as anti-authoritarian as the Famous Five. I appreciate that this is a rather more realistic conclusion than if the kids really HAD done it all by themselves, but that didn't make it any more satisfying. It was basically entertaining (and educational for those interested in cryptography), but as an Orwell for the Noughties - well, it's not entirely made of fail, but fail is definitely among the ingredients. A pity.



Blogger Adam Whitehead said...

Yeah, interesting book, fun in places but overall not really having the impact it was going for.

8:11 pm  
Blogger ThRiNiDiR said...

It's funny this books gets mentioned all over the place (in every second 'best of' list I've gone through, culled down and published on my blog). Great review though...


5:52 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home