November 13th, 2010


Book Review: Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

One-line summary: BoingBoing goes to war.


Amazon: Average: 4.2. Mode: 5 stars
Goodreads: Average: 4.02. Mode: 4 stars.

Marcus, a.k.a w1n5t0n, is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works, and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school's intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.

But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they are mercilessly interrogated for days.

When the DHS finally releases them, Marcus discovers that his city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: to take down the DHS himself.

If you didn't get the one-liner reference, BoingBoing is the tech blog of author Cory Doctorow. I began reading Little Brother with trepidation: I've read his collection of essays on technology and intellectual property, Content, so I knew where he stood on those issues. I was worried, however, that he would grind so heavily on those themes in this novel (the first fiction of his that I've read) that the message would eclipse the story. Most of us have experienced a book written by an author whose political views we largely agree with but which we would have preferred not to be beaten over the head with.

Doctorow comes close a few times, but while an awful lot of Jeffersonian rhetoric comes out of the characters' mouths, he stays just this side of keeping it engaging and in context.

Because Little Brother is a YA novel, I cut it some slack I wouldn't if it were aimed with the same purpose at adults, but it rises above the majority of fiction aimed at teens. It's not wish-fulfillment fantasy, and it actually has relevant thought-provoking content. That said, it's not without a few flaws.

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Verdict: I am becoming increasingly jaded with regard to anything labeled "Young Adult" (especially if romance is a major component). Little Brother is one of the few intelligent entries in the field. It's not a perfect book, but it's good and thought-provoking. My reactions swung from wild agreement to skepticism and occasional eye-rolling to "Hell, yeah!" In the end, it was a great and entertaining story (the first requirement of any novel, no matter what the author's agenda), and yes, it was actually educational. Doctorow makes no bones about his agenda (the foreword and afterword are full of contributions by himself and other notable names in the privacy and security field), so know going in that he has a point to make -- just like Orwell did.

Note also that while you can buy a traditional print version of this book, Doctorow puts his principles where his mouth is: you can download a free ebook version of Little Brother, just like all his other books.