Jun 29, 2010

Little Brother - Cory Doctorow

I put off reading Little Brother for some time. See, I have this subconscious aversion to the term "Young Adult". Which is weird, considering how I've loved almost all the YA books I've ever read, but there you have it.

Man, do I hate myself for waiting so long! Cory Doctorow's all-too-real dystopian vision of "security measures" gone wrong is one of the most gripping and compelling stories I've read this year. The story is set in an unspecified future a few years from now. Marcus Yallow is a 17-year old boy living in San Francisco. One day, while ditching school with his friends to look for a real-life clues from an on-line game, he becomes witness to a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge. Being in the wrong place at the oh-so-wrong time, Marcus is nabbed by the Department of Homeland Security. A few smart-ass "I know my rights and I wanna know what I've been charged with" retorts on his part lead to a week of physical and mental torture, while the DHS extract all his little teen secrets from him just for the heck of it. After that he is released, together with two of his pals. The fourth - his best friend Darryl - remains missing.

In those few days the city has changed. It is now an Orwellian nightmare of surveillance, security checkpoints, tagging and random checks on the street by the forces of the DHS. Even broken and scared, Marcus still can't quell the fury and indignation he feels at this violation of his freedom and privacy. And after what has been done to him, the only course he sees is making them pay for it. And taking the country back from tyranny in the name of "security". Thus begins a story of a techno-revolution that is not dissimilar to the movements in the 60s.

What I loved about Little Brother was the feeling of urgency, the looming shadow of a reality that is rapidly turning into a Fascist nightmare. Also, the main character Marcus is one of the most believable teens I've seen in a novel in a long time. He is not idealized, but neither is he dumbed-down for stereotype's sake. He is a smart, socially aware boy who makes mistakes, feels fear and insecurity; he is vulnerable and cocky at the same time, he mouths off and gets into trouble. But his naivete is also a shield and a sword in the battle with a foe that any "mature" person would never even consider standing up against.

The level of techno-slang in Little Brother is just about right for someone like me who browses the net every day, but considers "hacking" to be something akin to VooDoo mysticism. I can't really say where the real slang ends and the imaginary technology begins, but Doctorow has made his book so believable, so real, that it doesn't matter. It all adds to the feeling of imminent danger, of a future that could very well be now.

What I didn't like about Little Brother was the amount of explanation. I realize the book is meant to be read by younger people, but even so the info-dumps are just a bit too much, and some of them are situated at points where the reader really expects the story to move. I don't mind a one-sentence explanation of a term or concept, but two pages of crypto-theory just puts a stopper on things.

This is a small problem though. All in all Little Brother is a great story of a techno-age rebellion, one that I really empathised with, and with a main character I thoroughly loved. It is a warning of what could very well already be happening, but it is also a promise: that when it all goes wrong, it won't be the Big, but the Little Brother - the Little Brothers - watching, and that they will never let it happen without a fight. And if we could believe that - well, then we are the Little Brothers.


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