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Scarily plausible, raising interesting questions about terrorism and rebellion
on 28 December 2013
I have to confess that I've never read Nineteen Eighty-Four - though I obviously recognised the allusion to it in the title of Little Brother - and most of my expectations come from the other dystopian novels for young adults that I've read recently. I don't think I was quite as taken by this one as I have been by some of the others, but it's an interesting book I'd definitely recommend to the right audience.
At the start of Little Brother, San Francisco is hit by a terrorist attack reminiscent of the 9/11 attacks on New York. The novel follows Marcus, a teenager who - along with three friends - is in the wrong place at the wrong time in the aftermath of the attack and is arrested and interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security. On his release he learns that one of his friends has not been set free, and is horrified by the extent to which the DHS has taken control of San Francisco. So begins his rebellion against a surveillance state which has taken anti-terror measures to the point of abusing basic human rights.
Marcus' rebellion is technological. He's already a bit of a whizz-kid, easily tricking the relatively light-weight surveillance systems in place at his school and enjoying the benefits of unsanctioned networks used by teenagers across the city. But in post-attack San Francisco, the playing field has changed and Marcus has to up his game. Refusing to accept that treating every citizen as a potential terrorist is a reasonable response to the attack, Marcus sets up an underground network to communicate with similarly-minded peers and finds himself at the head of an increasingly powerful movement against the DHS and the police state.
What do I like about Little Brother? It's set in an unspecified year in the near-future and it's very, unsettlingly, plausible in its depiction of society. It's not a huge stretch of the imagination to picture a world where the lines between state security and personal freedom or privacy become blurred. And where much recent dystopian fiction brings in elements of fantasy, Little Brother is firmly rooted in reality. I didn't appreciate this whilst reading it, but postscripts at the end explain that all the technology, hacking and cryptography techniques used in the novel are completely authentic and impeccably researched.
I also liked the presentation of the `enemy' - primarily the DHS, but more broadly most of the adult population of San Francisco. Little Brother is told from a teenage perspective, and on the whole the adult villains are a faceless mass, defined by their uniforms and badges - almost caricatures. It seemed to me that this could be a technique designed to encourage any reader (regardless of age) to see things from the point of view of young adults who feel their privacy and freedom are unjustly jeopardised: it reminded me of E.T., in which the faces of adults (particularly the `bad guys') are rarely shown and the filming is done in such a way as to give the viewer the same perspective as Elliott.
What don't I like about Little Brother? I didn't find it an easy read, given it's aimed at the young adult market. Cory Doctorow takes the time to explain each new piece of technology or technique, which meant everything more or less made sense. But I still found the constant references to hacking terminology and so on quite hard-going. And I also didn't particularly like Marcus. I know this is kind of the point: the novel forces you to question Marcus' motives and at what point rebellion against counter-terrorism starts to stray into cyber-terrorism territory. But even aside from this, I found him hard to warm to. I don't think I was every really fully on his side. Then again, maybe this is an age thing - Marcus and his peers are fairly resolute in their belief that anyone over 25 can't understand their position and therefore can't be trusted.
I really found Little Brother interesting and thought-provoking, although I'm not sure I'd read it again. I am, however, going to give it to my own little brother, who's firmly in the target audience and who I think will really enjoy it, and look forward to the conversations it prompts.