Monday, December 15, 2008

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I’m not much for conspiracy theories. I find them a bit cynical, as if it is impossible for someone to believe that there is not a hidden agenda that benefits an entity in every circumstance. Yet there was a time in my life when I was into such things, watching The X-Files and reading about cover-ups of teleportation and spontaneous human combustion that even Art Bell would find hard to believe: when I was fifteen or sixteen.

So in a book aimed at people in their teenage years who likely are as cynical as they come, I wasn’t pu
t off by Cory Doctorow’s new YA novel Little Brother. Marcus is a high school student in a near future San Francisco who can find a way around every institutional roadblock. The school installed devices to track a student’s gait so they know who is walking down the hall, therefore he slides pebbles into is shoe to change his.

When terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge, Marcus is skipping school with his friends playing some sort of computerized scavenger hunt game. Separately, each finds himself locked away and intens
ely questioned by the Department of Homeland Security in the ‘Gitmo-by-the Bay.’ There he is subject to harsh interrogations, his teenage arrogance for asking for a lawyer quickly wiped away.

Released a few days later, he suspects his computer of being tapped. So he uses his hacked Xbox and a program called ParanoidXbox to create a community of like-minded young hackers like himself who then attempt to stick it to the DHS. He manages to figure out ho to change people’s car toll tags to say they are a different car, screwing up the department’s ability to track citizens. As the novel progresses, Marcus takes on the DHS more and more directly, fighting for the freedom that is his right; he isn’t shy to quote from the Declaration of Independence about a dozen times.

For the most part, Marcus is a well-developed character as is his girlfriend Ange. But too often the ‘villains’ of the novel are drawn as moustache-twirling ideologues. From his principal to the government, none seem to care about anything but staying in power, refusing even for a moment to consider an alternate point of view. But as the novel is narrated by Marcus and teenagers are a cynical lo, perhaps this is merely a reflection of the narrator (and intended audience). The only time I had a huge problem with this was when Marcus managed to get his hands on a video of the president’s chief advisor claiming to know when a terrorist attack was upcoming but refusing to do anything about it to help in the midterms. Despite what many people feel about the current Administration, which serves as the blueprint here for Doctorow, I can’t believe that so many American lives would be thoughtlessly sacrificed just to win an election. It didn’t ring true to me at all.

Doctorow is really good at explaining things, and at times Marcus shifts into a sort of help mode were he provides historical context for hacking tricks or the layout of San Francisco. Often this was relatively seamless and does serve the reader quite well. For example, he explains early on how to use a toilet paper roll and a few lights to make a camera detector. The author is also good at providing for the human element in so much technology. The ability to highjack an Xbox and create a secret Internet is neat, but the fact that it only succeeds because of social networking makes it even more realistic. Like Neal Stephenson, Doctorow doesn’t lose track of the humanity in the midst of a technological story written with a political agenda.

While I didn’t always buy what the narrative was selling, I did find this to be a quite enjoyable novel and one that really stands apart as an exemplary work for this possibly mythical YA audience. It is important that young people realize the price of freedom and when ceding said freedoms for safety is too high a price. Rather than straight indoctrination, Doctorow has laid his message on the back of a good yarn. While it was obvious to me at 29, it might not have been to me at 14. The fact that Little Brother works is testament to his skills as a fiction writer rather than just someone with an ideology.

Doctorow is a firm believer in copyright reform, a hot topic among authors these days. He provides digital editions of his books for free when they are published as physical texts, and you can find a link to a copy at his website. The cover displayed here is from what I think may be the softcover edition of the book. It is so much better suited to the content than the lame cover of the hardback version.

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