By Cory Doctorow
Little Brother was one of the first books I downloaded after getting an ipad last xmas, but ironically, I only started reading it after I picked up a hardback copy at the local thrift shop. For whatever reason, I just haven’t yet made the leap to ebooks. But I’m glad I finally read Little Brother, which came out in 2008. Though the post 9/11 pre-Obama alternative reality situation was already starting to feel a bit dated, by the time I was halfway through the book, the media onslaught of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 was running at full steam. So really, the timing was spot on!
The story takes place in San Francisco, not long after the twin towers had collapsed in NYC. Marcus and his three friends (Darryl, Jose Luis aka Jolu and Vanessa aka Van) skip class to go downtown and play an alternate reality game (or ARG) called Harajuku Fun Madness. On that fateful day, terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge, killing thousands of innocent civilians. Caught in the mayhem of panicking crowds, the four friends get taken into custody by Homeland Security. During an interrogation, Marcus makes the fatal mistake of expressing his individual rights, and ends up going through a mini version of Guantanamo Bay Hell. Suffice to say, HS chose the wrong dude to pick on, as Marcus happens to be an uber-smart computer geek who decides to take on the US Government after getting released.
At least two other 50-bookers have read Little Brother: Assignment X via his now defunct Doc’s 50 blog and Mt. Benson who wrote:
Doctorow writes here in a very broad manner and clearly sets up the straw dog of the terrorist attack to drive home his points about freedom of speech and government repression. Nevertheless he manages to make the story fun and interesting without getting too preachy.
I pretty much agree. In broad strokes, Doctorow does a good job in portraying how a democratic country like the USA can gradually become a police state and how the War on Terrorism can infringe upon the rights and freedoms of its citizens and create frighteningly inaccurate systems of security checks. But there have been a couple of times, like any speech by former President Bush, where Doctorow drives home his themes rather unsubtly.
It’s not about doing something shameful. It’s about doing something private. It’s about your life belonging to you.
They were taking that from me, piece by piece.
But Doctorow does frame those themes within a convincing and engaging narrative chock full of geek culture references, like LARPing, and stealth survival tips, like how to create a homemade hidden video camera-detector with an empty roll of toilet paper and LEDs. There were many things in the novel that I liked, such as the thoughtful portrayal of Marcus’ relationships with his friends, girlfriend and parents. With the exception of the two-dimensional portrayal of the Homeland Security agents as convenient villains, I felt all the characters were very realistically well drawn.
Little Brother also made me realize how San Francisco-based novelists love to write about their city. This tradition has been going on long before the Beat Gen poets came on the scene, and is still going strong with contemporary SF writers I admire, such as Lisa Lutz. Doctorow is no exception. Whether he’s talking about how SF has always been a hotbed for political activism and civil rights or how Mission burritos are an institution, he loves to dole out constant homages to his beloved city. At one point, he even name-drops fellow San Franscisco writer, Pat Murphy, which I thought was pretty cool.
This is a great read for all ages, but as a YA novel, it hits all the right notes with a cool setup, a well-paced story, three-dimensional characters, pop culture references and a call for political activism - particularly among the younger generation - in times of need.