Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother
Cory Doctorow
Tor Teen, 2008

Despite the praised heaped upon Little Brother upon its initial release I let it slip under my radar and off of my “to be read” stack.  Which, as it turns out, deprived me of one seriously entertaining and thought-provoking read.  In an Orwellian and disturbingly familiar future Marcus, also known as w1n5t0n, is a techno-geek who uses his skills to side-step school rules and surveillance that infringes on his privacy.  When a terrorist attack destroys an important bridge in San Francisco Marcus is caught and held for suspicion of terrorist activities.  Upon his release he finds a changed world (or at least changed San Francisco) where the DHS has begun to use scare tactics, witch hunts, and various methods of technological surveillance (particularly using RFIDs) to monitor and “police” the city’s population in order to, supposedly, protect them from terrorist threats.  In order to combat these offenses against personal privacy and the Bill of Rights rebels and vows to bring down the people responsible for his wrongful imprisonment. First, let me be honest, I struggled a bit to get started with this book.  Early in the novel Marcus is arrogant and absolutely full of himself in a way that only a teenager can be.  I couldn’t stand it.  Maybe that is the first real indication of age; when you just want to tell a teenager to shut up and sit down.  That doesn’t mean that I necessarily sided with the adults in the first pages of the novel but it was easy to see how Marcus’ personality could under an adult’s skin.  Marcus’ arrogance in this section of the novel is a firestorm of intelligence and confidence untested and untempered by either conflict or experience.  By about a quarter of the way into the novel it seemed to me that this was an intentional choice on Doctorow’s point.   Little Brother, in addition to be a story about a modern day revolution (of sorts), is a technological bildungsroman; a novel that shows a clear growth of character from beginning to end.

In fact I would argue that as a bildungsroman Little Brother stands shoulder to shoulder with the “classics” of that genre.  As much as I love a novel like Great Expectations I think Little Brother, with its modern setting and socially relevant subject matter, makes an infinitely more logical choice for a “summer reading” assignment.  Furthermore, for the teen crowd Little Brother makes a surprisingly cogent means of introducing the reader to security analysis as both a profession and a way of life.  In fact the bibliography (a hyperlinked version is available here) presents an excellent jumping off point for an individual looking to research the topics discussed in the novel.

As stated above I had a bit of an issue getting into the book and, if I’m going to nitpick a bit, the early problems with pacing in the beginning of the novel are a result of the same difficulties with exposition that crop up in the rest of the novel.  The opening chapters are all about introducing the reader to both the very familiar world of Little Brother and the character of Marcus himself.  As such they feature a fair amount of exposition as Marcus explains to the reader the various aspects that define his, and the novel’s, world.  Which, while interesting, does make things a bit slow at the start.  However, once the action does finally start things literally take off at a sprint and never really let up.  As fast and exciting as the pace is during the rest of the novel there are moments where the action stops so that Marcus can explain some bit of technology or history to the reader.  I am very much a reader driven by both plot and character so when I come accross elements in a novel that don’t necessarily contribute to defining or furthering either of those elements I get a bit frustrated.  Thankfully, the exposition that crops up over the course of the novel remains interesting and relevent if not to the plot (which it frequently is) than at least to either the social message Doctorow is examining or to the culture of technology that surrounds (and exists in) the novel.

Little Brother was interesting to read given recent events in Iran; the response to the peaceful protests drew a particularly eerie paralell.  On the other hand Little Brother is very much a novel rooted in American history and American ideals concerning the rights of the individual within a government.  As such I am uncertain how individuals outside of America have reacted to the novel and I would certainly appreciate any links to reviews from outside the States in the comments section below.

Little Brother is an important work of modern fiction that while marketed towards the teen crowd remains a relevant and worthwhile read for people of all ages.  In fact I would argue that it could provide some excellent dinner table conversation for families looking to bond and connect over excellent fiction.  Cory Doctorow is a known proponent of the Creative Common Movement and as such it should come as no small surprise that the novel is available for free download, in a plethora of formats, over at his website (released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license which means you have this nifty little remix section to peruse as well).   Anyway this is a fantastic thought provoking read that all readers should pick up and read at least once.

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