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Cory Doctorow – Little Brother

July 6, 2009

81. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (2008)

Read By: Kirby Heyborne
Length: 11h 53m (384 pages)

Genre: Young Adult

Started: 21 June 2009
Finished: 01 July 2009

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I can’t pinpoint where I picked up all of the buzz surrounding this book, but it was enough to convince me to pick it up.
Verdict? I’m tempted to buy myself a copy or two, just so I’ll have one on hand to lend out.

With apologies to Ben Franklin:

Give up my freedom
to get some security?
Not bloody likely!

Summary: Seventeen-year-old Markus and three of his friends are cutting school when terrorists blow up the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Caught out on the streets, they’re picked up by the Department of Homeland Security, and detained and questioned for days under suspicion of being involved in the attack. When Markus is finally released, he finds his city on lock-down, with the DHS having ramped up surveillance in every sphere of daily life. But Markus isn’t willing to let the government strip away his freedom without a fight, and he eventually becomes the figurehead for a new counterculture rebellion. But this rebellion makes him a marked man, and anyways, how can one kid possibly hope to take down the government-funded monolith of the DHS?

Review: This book terrified me. Admittedly, I don’t read a lot of horror novels, so I don’t have a huge basis for comparison, but this book is easily the most terrifying thing I’ve read in years. And what’s terrifying isn’t a bunch of supernatural ghosties and goblins… just about everything in this book is either real, or completely plausibly almost real – and that’s what scares the crap out of me.

The title, of course, is a reference to Orwell’s 1984, and therefore this book tends to get classed with other dystopian novels – i.e. as science fiction. The thing is, though, that calling this book science fiction is a misnomer. Almost all of the technology that Doctorow describes already exists; the surveillance systems he describes as being taken over by DHS are already in place, invading our privacy in a million subtle ways every day. Little Brother is technically speculative fiction, but the scary thing is that it doesn’t have to speculate very far: its world could easily be our world tomorrow… literally, tomorrow. That’s not dystopian, that’s just… topian. And that makes it one important read. Regardless of your politics, regardless of your views on issues of privacy and free speech and terrorism and national security and personal liberty, Little Brother highlights the knife edge on which our society is walking, and the terrible ways in which it can go wrong.

The thing is, although this book is terrifying and important, and although it wears its politics on its sleeve and very clearly has A Message, it’s still a really, really good read. The style might not be to everyone’s taste; there are frequent mini-lectures about security, or encryption, or the history of the counterculture movement, or LARPing, or computer programing, or whatever. That may sound deathly boring to you – I certainly would have thought so before I read this book – but the thing is, Doctorow writes them so well, and they’re all so immediately relevant to the plot, that they wind up completely fascinating, even for non-techno-geeks like me. (With the exception of one digression that involved a lot of IP addresses that poor Kirby Heyborne still had to read out loud for the audiobook.)

The technobabble and the terrorism plots aren’t all there is to this book, either. Marcus is a thoroughly believable teenaged boy, and Doctorow’s also really good at capturing the realities of being seventeen. Little Brother is as effective of a coming-of-age story as it is a technogeek-rebellion-political-commentary, and where it really wins is by so effortlessly merging the two together. So, to sum up: the narrator’s sympathetic, the story is fascinating, the writing is engaging, you learn some cool things along the way, it makes you think critically about the world around you, and the issues it raises are of crucial importance to modern society. Why aren’t you reading this book already? 5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Read it. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, or avoid young adult novels on principle, this one is worth your time. I may be older than twenty-five, but trust me… at least on this.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Cory Doctorow’s website, where you can download Little Brother for free under the Creative Commons license.

Other Reviews: Things Mean A Lot, Maw Books Blog, Bookshelves of Doom, The Book Bind, Confessions of a Bibliovore, Bending Bookshelf, Fantasy Book Critic, Rat’s Reading, Book Dweeb, And Another Book Read, Stop, Drop and Read, The Wertzone, The Reading Zone, Reading Junky’s Reading Roost
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: I’m a senior at Cesar Chavez high in San Francisco’s sunny Mission district, and that makes me one of the world’s most surveilled people in the world.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2009 6:50 am

    Love the haiku!!!! I’ve had this one sitting on my shelves for many months now…sounds like it’s time to get around to reading it.

  2. July 6, 2009 8:28 am

    Boy, does that sound like a book for the times. I’m adding it to my wish list. Fantastic review.

  3. July 6, 2009 9:03 am

    Debi – Heh, thanks! I was actually kind of surprised that that Ben Franklin quote *didn’t* turn up anywhere in the book itself, as I think it sums up the point perfectly.

    bermudaonion – For the times, indeed. It may be outdated in five or ten years (let’s hope, anyways!), but it speaks to our times pretty precisely. I hope you enjoy it!

  4. July 6, 2009 10:42 am

    Yes, I hope it’s outdated soon. But in the meantime, I’m like you–I keep buying new copies, because I keep giving my copy away.

  5. July 6, 2009 2:07 pm

    I do love sci fi but for some reason the label Young Adult sends me to the hills. I’ll give it a read, even if Cory Doctorow’s lecturing on the net has turned me off a time or two.

    What I find really scary is how much of our freedoms we are voluntarily, nay happily giving away! 24/7 access, GPS pinpointing, twittering our every movement. It’s not going to be hard to put 1984 in place.

  6. July 6, 2009 4:01 pm

    “That’s not dystopian, that’s just… topian.”

    lol! Okay, even though this made me laugh, you’re SO right. It could happen tomorrow, and that’s just terrifying. On the other hand, watching all those kids fight back also gave me some hope. Even if they’re fictional kids :P

  7. July 7, 2009 11:04 am

    Jeanne – I bet! I can think of at least three people off the top of my head that I feel the need to rush out and give this book to immediately.

    Carrie K – I think you’ll enjoy it, even if it is YA and does involve a bit of Cory Doctorow lecturing. I don’t know that it would have worked as anything but YA, actually… there’s a quote in the book that’s something to the effect that kids are going to be the only ones who *can* win against the government because they’re the only ones too stupid to realize that there’s no way they can possibly win against the government. :)

    Nymeth – Agreed, the sense of hope is what made it just terrifying, instead of terrifyingly bleak. And they’re technically fictional kids, but I definitely went to high school and college with more than one Markus-equivalent, so they’re out there. :)

  8. July 8, 2009 4:43 pm

    I have GOT to get my hands on this. I loved Doctorow’s SOMEONE COMES TO TOWN, SOMEONE LEAVES TOWN, and this one sounds even better.

  9. July 9, 2009 2:04 pm

    Memory – I haven’t read any of Doctorow’s other stuff, but I think I’m going to have to remedy that.


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