Little Brother

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (2006). 384 pages, TOR Books.

I really enjoyed this book. If I were fifteen, I would love this book.

Little Brother is classified as a “Young Adult” or “Teen” novel. Amazon lists it as being for “Grades 10 and Up”. It’s even printed under publisher TOR’s “Teen” imprint. So why did I decide to read it?

One of my oldest friends (college buddy, former roommate, all around great guy), Jonathan Green, recently asked a bunch of us via Facebook to recommend appropriate science fiction for his 11-year-old son, Dash. I made the suggestions of A Wrinkle in Time and the Golden CompassHis Dark Materials series, among others. Several other people suggested Little Brother.

I’d heard of Little Brother, but hadn’t thought much of it, since it seemed so obviously aimed at teenagers. But since several of my fellow Galaxy Rangers (not the cartoon show – the Northwestern University Science Fiction club from the early 1980’s) had mentioned it, I figured I should check it out. And, it’s written by Cory Doctorow, whose short fiction I have always enjoyed – not to mention his excellent blog BoingBoing.net.

After a quick download to my Kindle DX, I started in on the book. And was transported back to high school…

Little Brother reminds me very much of the “juvenile” science fiction novels of the 1950s and 1960s. Robert Heinlein was the master of these, including Podkayne of Mars, Have Spacesuit Will Travel, Starship Troopers, and – my personal favorite – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. However, unlike Heinlein’s quite obviously right-wing themes, Little Brother is just as obviously left-wing. I remember sometimes reading Heinlein’s books as a teen, and thinking, “Man. Don’t they ever care how about how the rest of the (world / aliens / humanity / planet) is going to survive?” Little Brother has all the excitement and techno-friendliness of Heinlein, without the creepy Ayn Rand vibe.

Little Brother takes place in the near future. Marcus Yallow is a 17-year-old high school student in San Francisco. He’s a gamer, a technology geek, and a decent student. He and his friends like to spend their spare time building computers, programming new and interesting games, and generally enjoying themselves in the 21st century. Hackers, but without the criminal part, you know?

In order to play a geocaching game, Marcus and three of his friends ditch school early one afternoon. But just as they are about to find an important clue in the game they are playing… terrorists strike the city of San Francisco. The Bay Bridge is blown up in a massive explosion, and thousands of people are killed. Almost instantly, the government panics, sending in massive squads of troops to restore order to the city. In the confusion and paranoia after the attack, Marcus and his friends are swept up in a security raid, and are taken prisoner by the Department of Homeland Security.

The next few chapters are gritty and gripping, as Marcus – along with literally hundreds of others picked up in the raid – is imprisoned and tortured for nearly a week, before the DHS becomes moderately convinced that he is not one of the terrorists. So they let him go, with the assurance that if he breaths a word of his capture to anyone, even to his parents, they will pick him up and ship him off to a foreign location for torture.

And although Marcus is frightened enough to keep his capture secret, he’s angry enough to decide to fight back. Using his computer skills, his army of geek friends, and his fervent belief in the power of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, he begins an underground war against the DHS. He and his gang become “Little Brothers” and “Little Sisters” in the fight against “Big Brother”, the DHS.

I won’t lie and say the characterization in this novel is on point and well done, because it isn’t. Marcus is a relatively two-dimensional character, as is everyone else. The bad guys are Bad and the good guys are Good. The DHS as portrayed in this book is almost (but not quite) laughably evil. I almost (but not quite) felt that their actions were so extreme, so one-sided, that even the frightened population of a post-attack San Francisco would never have gone along with it.

But then I remember 2001, and 2002, and the Patriot Act, and the war in Iraq, and the Military Commissions Acts, and Gitmo, and the secret torture prisons of the CIA… and I realize that this novel’s villains are not so far-fetched at all. And each time I’d read, and think “Oh, now, come on!” … well, after a few seconds, I would change my mind and think, “Yeah, that actually could happen”.

This is a first-person novel, and sometimes the story gets bogged down in techno-jargon as Marcus goes off on a tangent, describing the technology he’s using or the cryptography technique he is employing. But, as in any good Young Adult novel, the slight sidetrack for a lesson pays off well, so I found myself actually looking forward to Marcus’ little digressions.

There is real danger in this novel, and there are times when reading it that my heart raced and I gripped the Kindle in both hands, reading faster to see how it was going to play out. Marcus is a true hero – near the end of the novel he is ready and willing to sacrifice everything, even his life, to protect the freedoms that are provided to us in the United States.

As I said at the beginning, I really enjoyed this novel. But then again… I’m a 47-year-old liberal-leaning technology geek. Of course I would like it. The question is, how does Little Brother rate as far as my friend Jonathan’s original question: Would it be good for his 11-year-old son?

I can’t completely answer that. Little Brother does have some mild, non-graphic descriptions of sex (the characters are high school students, after all), although I am pleased to report that the characters involved clearly make use of condoms. So even that is educational. The overall subject matter is “deep”. And it’s really just barely science fiction… everything described in Little Brother already exists (or could exist) today, for example.

I can say that if I had children, I would very much endorse them reading this book. It’s the specific age that I’m just not sure about. I read my first Stephen King novel (Carrie) when I was 12, and I absolutely loved it. My mother was smart enough to bring it home one night and said “You’ll love this, and I guess you’re old enough”. If I were 12 today, I would hope my mother might hand me a copy of Little Brother and say exactly the same thing.

It’s not exactly a secret that I was beyond horrified at the extremes the Bush administration went to in curbing our civil liberties during the first half of this decade. For a while during the 2002 to 2004 period, I seriously lived in fear that The Government was going to literally be in control of every facet of our lives – all in the name of “protecting” us from “terrorism”. I’ve said it over and over: Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda must have jumped for joy when our paranoid and frightened political leaders rolled over and gave up our hard-fought freedoms in just a few months.

During that time, I kept wondering, “Why isn’t anybody fighting back? Why aren’t young people taking to the streets in mobs?” But no one ever did. In Little Brother, the young people do fight back. And they do take to the streets. And in the end… well, I won’t give it away. Read the book. Or give it to a Young Adult and have them describe it to you later.

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