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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Review: Cory Doctorow's 'Little Brother'

Time for another review from my Wild Things Summer Reading Challenge. Last time I gave you my thoughts on Tara Bray Smith's 'Betwixt', which was the worst book I read in the challenge. It still haunts me.
This time, I thought we'd go with something a little more enjoyable. This is one of my favorite books from the challange. It's 1984 for the Microsoft generation. I present to you, Little Brother:

Little Brother Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book made me paranoid. Still. It’s a lasting effect that will have you looking over your shoulder and doubting whether you really want to be a part of “the system.”
Reading like a Snow Crash for teens, Little Brother tells the story of Marcus Yallow (aka w1n5t0n3; aka M1k3y), a (mostly) harmless 17 year old who is taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security in a classic “wrong place, wrong time” scenario -- namely, the worst terrorist attack ever on US soil. When Marcus is finally released after days of interrogation and humiliation tactics, only to find that the DHS has effectively taken control of the world he knows and is abusing their power to spy on and terrorize innocent people, he vows to take them down. The result of this vow has Marcus embarking on a quest to technologically outwit and humiliate the DHS and the United States government that supports it in an effort to regain freedoms of speech, thought and action for US citizens.
When I started this book I had some misgivings. Firstly, I was overwhelming struck with an image of Snow Crash, and was afraid that this was going to be a kiddy retelling. Also, the idea of a teen using computers to outsmart everyone (i.e. adults) immediately brought to mind that cheesy 80’s movie with the kid who has to play the computer to save the world, or whatever the hell happened. Then, there was the abundance (over-abundance?) of technological information (and by turns, protest-movement information, governmental/spy info, etc.); I was worried that this might overwhelm the book and completely lose less tech-savvy readers.
My first two fears were unfounded. I quickly forgot about the 80’s movie, though there are striking similarities to Snow Crash (Doctorow even credits Stephenson in the acknowledgments [Cryptonomicon, not Snow Crash:]), as both books revolve around characters using technology to defeat a powerful enemy (in many cases with the law on its side). Because of this, there are bound to be similarities, but Little Brother holds its own. It is less culture-, language- and religion-based than Snow Crash, focusing almost solely on governmental abuses of power and human rights. As for an over-abundance of tech jargon and explaining, that is something that can only be determined person to person. The very tech savvy may find the breaks for explanation irritating and time-consuming, and those with little tech background may still be lost.
But for the majority of today’s teens, the balance is right, as is the tone. Marcus reads authentic in a way that isn’t always pulled off in teen lit, and his indignation will feel right in tune with “rebellious youth” and adults alike. Marcus raises excellent questions about civil liberties and the dangerous trends of invasion of privacy, founded on sound and timely thinking (which makes it that much scarier).
My only warning: there are those that will consider this book "dangerous." Some parents may not want their children reading about open rebellion and what may be seen as anti-government thinking. The book can also be a potential guidebook for a little "wrong-doing" -- caller-id spoofing, pirating, code cloning, and many, many things that most people don't want know, and those in charge don't want you to are talked about openly (even encouragingly) in this book, and Doctorow's acknowledgments in the back direct readers where to find some of the things discussed. This may be unsettling for some, but it is wholly in keeping with the spirit of freedom, free-information and the questioning and boundary-testing of the book. (I think every teen should read this and know they can question things; some parents and authorities may disagree.)
There were honestly times when my heart was pounding reading this book; that just doesn’t happen, folks. Very compelling and unsettling.
This book will make you paranoid.

View all my reviews >>

Bonus material: I can see myself recommending this to teens, especially boys, and I can see parents being pissed about it. Marcus is a strong-minded and strong-willed person, and I emphasize person because adults have a habit of treating teens and kids like half-people. They're not quite there yet, and so not able of really thinking... Maybe it's some bitterness-backlash at youthful idealism: we remember when we were passionate and right, and we miss it. Either way, adults have a tendency of dismissing teens, and Marcus will not be dismissed. Good character to learn from, I think.


  1. Spot-on with the bonus material. I think the technical term for it is head-in-the-sand syndrome, or if your feeling crass, headuptheass syndrome.

    Two more books added to the TBR thanks to your review!

  2. i agree, good book! and i liked your review.

  3. Hmm...I haven't heard this of the one before. I can understand your pre-reading worries. I'm thinking I'd probably have the same ones. But you gave it pretty high marks, and I tend to like what you recommend more than not, so I'll probably add it to my ever-growing TBR list and hopefully get around to reading it eventually!

    Natalie @ Mindful Musings

  4. You can read it online for free at Cory's site, craphound.com

  5. I've listened to quite a few of Cory D's audio books. Although I enjoy the ideas I get a bit bogged down in the technicalities and Cory's reading voice does not make it easier.

    This positive review has encouraged me to to have a go at reading the book. I am very much in touch with my inner teenager so I should enjoy it.

  6. Yeah, I don't think this would really work as an audio book. You need to be able to stop and read over the technical stuff and process what they're saying/doing.

  7. Awesome review, Misty! As enthusiastic as you are about this book, I don't think it's for me. It seems a little technological and spy-y for me, not really my cup of tea. The only thing about the book that appeals to me is that it makes you think afterwards; it sounds like the type of book that stays with you. That's always good, but I don't think this is a book I would enjoy. Cheers Misty!


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