I wouldn't quite go as far as Neil Gaiman, but I would certainly recommend Little Brother to anyone interested in civil liberties, dystopia fiction or hacking. In writing this novel Cory Doctorow deservedly joins the company of a long line of dystopic writers like Jack London, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. His intertextual link with Orwell warrants particular mention; Little Brother doesn't just allude to Nineteen Eighty Four, it seems to consciously set out to expand on it. And although Nineteen Eighty Four is a superior novel, Doctorow has definitely succeeded in contemporising the central point.
Doctorow sets out to bombard his readers with information in a way vaguely reminiscent of Manuel Puig's footnotes in Kiss of the Spider Woman - this is a polemic with a narrative with a hundred articles on youth culture, political history, the beats, human rights, counter-terrorism and so on and so forth all in one book. It is openly didactic and angrily political and if you agree with its social commentary (as I do) it is quite an experience.
Little Brother is also an instruction manual on how to think about security - from mundane security to draconian security to security against draconian security; Doctorow aims to show how security can work for you and against you and how security without privacy is ineffective and harmful. In addition Little Brother is a homage to hackers (like Andrew "bunnie" Huang), defenders of freedom (like Emma Goldman) and writers (like George Orwell).
The novels style is fast, meandering, idiomatic (in a middle class geeky way) and realist. Doctorow is not above using thriller devices like chapter cliff-hangers and foreshadowing nor will he be gentle. He is, however, honest, even about being polemical and didactic, which I guess is what stops this book from becoming sheer propaganda. Doctorow uses cultural references well to ground his novel and maintains the strong atmosphere of his San Francisco setting replete with anarchist bookstores, coffee shops and iconoclasts.
This book does have limitations. To maintain the flow of information Doctorow had to weaken the narrative by inserting endless descriptions. Because of this you sometimes feel like you are reading an interesting collection of political essays rather than a novel. The villains are caricatures, which is admittedly hard to avoid. And lastly, Little Brother can become annoyingly sentimental in a way Orwell would never even contemplate allowing. However, these problems don't significantly detract from the works value and the real deciding factor when it comes to enjoying this book is going to be, as with all instrumental novels, do you agree with its argument?
I picked up 'Little Brother' on the back of one or two interesting reviews, and it's fair to say it didn't disappoint. Both exciting and provocative, I expect it to become one of the most talked about novels of 2008.
With a title like 'Little Brother', Cory Doctorow's novel is bound to draw comparison with 1984, although the two are only superficially similar. To me choice of title feels as though it was made in the hope of catching some reflected glory from Orwell's masterpiece, which is shame; though not destined for 1984's greatness amongst the literary canon, I think 'Little Brother' may, in future, be seen as a seminal piece of counter-cultural fiction.
But what do I know? I'm over 25, which Doctorow goes some to lengths to point out, means that it's best not to listen to me. Little Brother, is very much a novel for the young and although I enjoyed it, I'm sure I missed some of the nuances of an IT savvy lifestyle and the general state of oppression that most teenagers (feel they) live under. I found 'Little Brother' very reminiscent of Scott Westerfeld's novels, which I have also enjoyed and at the end of the novel, Doctorow acknowledges Westerfeld's influence.
Little Brother breaks down into two major themes; the use of technology and the abuse of power. The sections that detail using an Xbox to create an underground internet and outline the various cryptographic measures taken by the characters, reek of authenticty and form a solid framework upon which the novel is built. For me though, the strength of the novel lies in its assessment of the abuse of our basic human rights through anti-terror legislation.
The near-future, pictured by Doctorow is entirely plausible and therefore all the more
terrifying. His arguments are a little one-sided; not all anti-terror measures are about controlling the population (but perhaps I think that because I'm over 25) and certain sections of the novel feel contrived; shoe-horned in to allow the author to make a certain political point. The teenage whinging of the protagonist is also sometimes a little hard to bear and occasionally gives the book a somewhat juvenile tone (again this may be an age thing).
Nevertheless, 'Little Brother' is an excellent and deeply affecting read. A wide ranging polemic on the abuse of power and people's contentment to let it happen, as long it doesn't affect them, or helps them feel safer at a minority's expense. Anybody who thinks identity cards are a good thing, or that you have nothing to worry about if you've done nothing wrong should read 'Little Brother'; it will open your eyes. The final pages brought a tear to my eye and left me wondering, just how much I am manipulated by the government and a reactionary media. Little Brother is the most important novel I have read in months, and I urge you to do the same.
on 24 September 2010
Calling your novel "Little Brother" is not really leaving much to the reader's imagination. There really are no subtleties at all in this novel about the abuse of individual rights, the attack on people's privacy and the blatant assault on the Constitution of the USA in the name of `national security' in the digital age.
The book starts with Marcus Yallow, aka w1n5t0n (later M1k3y), and his friends Darryl, Van and Jolu in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on San Francisco (not coincidentally also the birthplace of a lot of the digital age tycoons as well as the traditional epicenter of liberalism in the US). After the Bay Bridge is attacked, they find themselves arrested and `questioned' by agents of the Department of Homeland Security. Three of the boys are eventually released (but are terrified into not letting anyone know what happened to them, or else...) but Darryl's fate seems uncertain: dead, locked up someplace else,...
This experience, as well as seeing how his home city has turned into a police state, leads Marcus to set up his own version of a `safe and untraceable' network of his own, the Xnet, which starts to lead a life of his own in this teen version of a techno-revolution. What follows is a whirlwind of technical tidbits, (semi-)mathematical explanations about the ifs and hows of some of the Internet and the Xnet's security issues and a race against time to bring down the DHS to save individual liberties and obtain justice for all...
Yes, those are the stakes that Marcus is up against. The themes and references in this book are very much in your face, but you keep reading because you want to know if - and especially of course how - Marcus succeeds in destroying this oppressive DHS-tyranny. At times the book is really quite enjoyable, but as many times, the writing style of this book bothered me with its amateurism and shallowness. Nevertheless, Little Brother is an interesting and enjoyable read for all you compu-geeks out there. You might get a tech-buzz out of all the references. Of course, the themes are what they are, and of course, one shouldn't ridicule any attack on a person's civil liberties, just don't expect a stylized novel with carefully chosen language or you will be in for a disappointment.
I enjoyed the mix of technology, story and polemic in Cory's Makers, and found the premise of "Little Brother" - a glimpse into the near future with an eye on privacy, freedom and surveillance in a post-9/11 world - interesting. It's an important theme which deserves serious consideration, but I don't really think it's received it here. As others have pointed out, Cory makes his belief (that no amount of fear can justify the curtailment of the right to privacy) explicit on every page. There's no room for contemplation of an alternative - or even a more subtle - view: thus, *all* the bad guys in the Department of Homeland Security are shown to be engaged in nefarious practices designed to keep the populace under control (it's even suggested at one point that these include engineering a terrorist attack as post-hoc justification for more extreme forms of surveillance), while the goodies (led by Marcus, the 17-year old hero) are brave, inventive, kind and smarter than the baddies. They're also young and, at one point, come up with the slogan "Don't trust anyone over 25" (you see what I mean about this not being a subtle treatment of the issue).
Youth is probably another reason why Marcus keeps breaking off from the story to provide the reader with breathlessly explicatory paragraphs about botnets, encryption, radio frequency ID tags, the civil rights movement and Jack Kerouac. I thought a few of these were interesting (even for stuff I already knew about), but they include some sloppy writing which I found irritating. For example, Marcus describes the geography of San Francisco and explains the difference between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge; apparently, he feels obliged to insert this because he originally thinks (p63) that it's the former that's been attacked by terrorists. But it's hard to see why he should, because the signature of the attack was "a huge black cloud rising from the northeast, from the direction of the Bay" (p25). I've only been to San Francisco half a dozen times, but I'm pretty sure that I'd be able to work out which bridge was implied by this, even in the middle of the heat of the war on terror.
on 3 September 2009
In some ways, this book harks back to the juveniles of fifties as written by some of the great masters of sf, most especially Heinlein. Like those earlier books, it portrays teenagers that are intelligent, resourceful, game-loving, and confrontational, but are still at times prone to making stupid mistakes in the name of peer-group status. In other words, they are real teenagers.
The setting is the near future, when some ill-defined terrorist group decides to blow up the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Marcus, our hero, and several of his friends are picked up in a rather wide sweep by Homeland Security forces as possible suspects. And therein lies the tale, as the actions of the security forces clash violently with Marcus's idea of what is right and proper in the supposed land-of-the-free America. What Marcus decides to do about this situation is an instructional manual to the reader in just how personal freedom and privacy have been restricted and what can be done about it in today's very high-tech world of security cameras, RFIDs, cryptography, computer databases, and the insidious insinuation of propaganda both at our schools and into everything we see and hear on the internet and our TVs and from the mouths of our political leaders.
The story bubbles with suspense, and the actions that Marcus takes are very believable as something a seventeen-year old could actually do. It is very easy to identify with Marcus and become very sympathetic to his cause, while the situation itself is stark enough to frighten the daylights out of the reader as being all too possible. The info-dumps along the way not only impart some very necessary information to the reader, but are handled very much the way Heinlein did it, as things that are necessary for the hero to either know or learn about to accomplish his desires, making them easy to swallow. The techniques and technology presented are real, as some of the afterword material to this book details.
The other characters of this book, while not presented with the detail that Marcus is (almost a given in any first-person narration), are both intriguing and in some cases frightening. Marcus's father is a major case in point, as a man with liberal leanings who nevertheless finds himself driven to support the majority view out of fear for his son, and Marcus's social studies teacher, who is very reminiscent of some of the `mentors' of Heinlein's books, as her willingness to engage her students in free-wheeling debate and attempts to get them to think for themselves leads to a very plausible and ugly fate. It is just such touches that make the whole situation ring with that touch of reality that marks excellent science fiction.
The politics of this book are decidedly left-wing. The Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security come in for some merciless beatings, but the reasoning behind such depictions is carefully laid out and form a clarion call to all Americans to look carefully at just what we are giving up in the name of `security'. Perhaps it should be compared and contrasted (as one of those infamous school assignments I don't fondly remember) with something like Tom Clancy's Executive Orders, which presents the right-wing rationale of why and when the government should be allowed to exceed the boundaries of the Constitution and its amendments.
Unlike the YA material of the fifties, this book does not ignore an item of great concern to almost every teenager, namely sex. I found the presentation of this material both appropriate to the characters and handled realistically without being too graphic. However, it might make this book inappropriate for pre-teens.
Teenagers should find this book a riveting read, with characters they can identify with, and like all really good YA books, adults should find this book just as riveting, with concepts and philosophies presented that require thought and contemplation. This is the best book I've read out of the 2008 crop, and was deservedly nominated for the 2008 Hugo.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
I loved this book! Topical, impassioned, energetic and angry, Cory Doctorow doesn't so much insert himself into the debate over civil liberties and anti-terrorism laws as smash the door down with his bare knuckles.
Marcus is a 17-year old high-school student in San Francisco caught up with his friends in a terrorist bombing of the Bay Bridge. Rounded up as terrorist subjects just because they are on the scene, they are whisked off-shore by the Department for Homeland Security and held for interrogation for days while their parents think they are dead. Three of the four are released but are warned that they will be under continual surveillance and if they tell anyone what happened they will disappear for ever...
But Marcus, terrified and ashamed of his humiliation, refuses to accept that the American Constitution can be broken in this way, and starts to fight back. Creating an online community through hacked Xboxes that operate beneath the surveillance radar, he galvanises a rebellion against the police state which has taken over San Francisco.
Doctorow's love of technology shines through this book, and the in-depth way in which Marcus and his friends subvert the very tools which the government has exploited to curb their freedom is brilliant.
This is polemical and unsubtle: the goodies are all really, really good (despite being teenagers they're all well-spoken, polite, don't like alcohol, and the protagonist even at 17 has only ever kissed three girls and only has sex when he's falling in love...), and the baddies are really, really bad. But Doctorow is no political radical: he's definitely on the side of the angels, but uses the simple but telling metaphor of the American political body infected with an autoimmune disease: where the very defensive mechanisms which are supposed to keep it safe, actually turn against it and start to destroy it from the inside.
This is also brilliantly written with a verve and energy that is fresh, and dynamic. This dropped a star from me because even though it kept me up all night I wouldn't read it again. So, not a `keeper' but certainly a book that I will be recommending to everyone I know.
Marcus Yallow, a 17 year old student in San Francisco and his 3 friends are very much in the wrong place at the wrong time when a terrorist attack happens. Skipping school to play an online computer game, Marcus, Darryl, Jolu and Vanessa are all rounded up by the Department of Homeland Security and held for questioning. 5 days later Marcus, Jolu and Vanessa are released; however they are made very much aware that should they reveal what happened to them they will "disappear" for good and are left in ignorance of the fate of Darryl. Left angry and frightened, Marcus vows to get even with the DHS.
Pretty much everyone is being watched by government technology; their whereabouts tracked and anyone not considered to be undertaking "normal" activities considered a potential terrorist. A computer expert, Marcus begins his own attacks against the surveillance DHS introduces and soon leads an online army determined to retain their right to privacy and freedom of movement.
This is a clever, fast paced, mesmerising story produced by Cory Doctorow and a worrying insight into how people can react to a terrorist attack. The DHS swarm San Francisco, and although many feel safe with the security measures introduced, an increasing number of people begin to realise that life has become much scarier. There is quite a lot of computer information amid the storyline to highlight how Marcus and others like him manage to disrupt the DHS; however even the most technophobic of readers will not be scared off.
Judged as a thought and debate provoking teenage school text this probably deserves 4 stars as it wraps all sorts of important and trendy issues into a readable Disney plot. Otherwise it's a bit lightweight and saccharine, too often copping out or not pursuing issues rigorously enough. It's hard to fault the technological content - the Open Source Linux v Big Bad brother Microsoft debate, the potential insidious surveillance uses of IT by government, but add the debate about human rights versus state security, definitons of terrorism, government accountability, the independence of the press, even town planning and the environment or teenage sex - and there's too much to comfortably fit into a piece of young adult "entertainment". I found Marcus and all his buddies a bit too middle class and most of the other characters, especially the baddies (teachers, FBI types etc) are one dimensional. Despite the evil and terrifying things going on round them you never really feel they're not going to survive and ultimately the moral lessons of the book are a litle trite or shallow. Maybe we are lucky, those of us living in our hyper-PC, Euro nanny state not to have to suffer in a western post-Woodstock, conspiracy theoretical, fundamentalist Guantanamo Bay world where the next generation of kids walk with pebbles in their shoes to evade the gait-recognition cameras in every shopping mall. Or are we?
on 25 July 2014
I never write reviews, but with this book - I just had to do it.
“Little Brother”, on the surface, seems to be an enjoyable read about of a teenager living in today’s world of ubiquitous surveillance. Marcus tries to live a normal life, with his friends, family and a girlfriend. Then comes the twist - he gets caught in the aftermath of a terror attack. The young American is not arrested - as you would expect in sunny San Francisco, California. He is detained.
That’s where the real story unfolds. From that moment on, you can’t stop reading and you can’t stop wondering. Why this fiction (about home) is so similar to reality (abroad)? Why is it so scary? Is it really that easy to change the land of freedom into a land of terror?
This is a great book. If you have never been interested in civil liberties, didn't care about Guantanamo, secret prisons or torture – this book is precisely for you. It won’t bore you. The life of a young man with impressive computer skills is entertaining enough. But really, it’s a very important warning how fragile are liberties are. In unassuming, even light style, the story unfolds to shows surprisingly accurate parallels between fiction in the book and the real events we hear about, no so far from home.
Someone said “if you’re going to read one book this year – this is the one”. I couldn't agree more.
This is an excellent techno-thriller story of 17 year-old Marcus, a.k.a. M1k3y, and his fight for freedom from the suppression of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Following a supposed terrorist attach in San Francisco, the DHS invoke extreme invasive procedures for the population, tracking where people go and what they say, and anyone doing anything out of the ordinary gets stopped and searched on the premise of "national security". Anyone that falls foul of this will just disappear, may be forever. The population are living in fear, not of the terrorists, but of the DHS.
This is where M1k3y comes in, a bit of a cool computer whiz-kid, who after the terrorist attack gets some severe treatment from the DHS. But after overcoming his immense fear, he realises that the DHS measures will not stop terrorists and only restrict freedom. M1k3y knows how to surf the net and send messages to people without being traced. He knows how to avoid being tracked and identified by the surveillance cameras. But best of all, he knows how to fight back. Together with his closest friends they set up an untraceable communications network and plot to expose the DHS and the horrors they get up to.
A thoroughly engaging and absorbing thriller. Top marks!