rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you read just one book this year, make sure it’s Little Brother. I picked this book up because I noticed a signed copy at WonderCon; having heard about its Hugo nomination, the title stuck in my mind. While I didn’t buy the signed edition (it’s mostly the experience of watching the author sign his or her own book and personalize it right in front of you as you make small talk, gush about how big of a fan you are, and generally embarrass yourself that makes it worth the signature), I did buy a copy and WOWEE! You should, too.
Marcus “w1n5t0n” Yallow is a seventeen year old hacker living in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, California (it feels weird typing out the state name--I live here). And, as he narrates in the opening chapter is “a senior as Cesar Chavez High in San Francisco’s sunny Mission District” (p 9). The school is either paranoid or taking advantage of contemporary technology, but Marcus and his friends are pretty smart and work around the school’s watchdog devices and programs, especially to crack the SchoolBook laptops given to students for educational use and engage in al sorts of otherwise uneducational behavior, like chatting to each other during lessons.
This comes in pretty useful when Marcus and his friends Darryl, Van (Vanessa), and Jolu (José Luis) get the latest clue from Harajuku Fun Madness--an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) involving real time investigating, puzzle-solving, and clue-finding, exploring the streets of San Francisco and the internet for obscure cultural references. As the novel opens, so does a new chapter in Harajuku Fun Madness. Marcus convinces a very unwilling Darryl (upon fear of expulsion over one more school infraction) to ditch the rest of the day and meet Van and Jolu to play the game. But when they arrive at the first checkpoint, they’re photographed by one of the city’s many volunteer truant watchers--this time, a fellow Harajuku Fun Madness gamer bent on blackmailing Marcus and his friends for a chance to get the clue and solve the puzzles faster. But before anyone can do anything, the ground starts to move beneath their feet. Veteran San Franciscans at first assume the lurching is an earthquake. Then an explosion of smoke, sound, sirens, and the beginning of the end.
Marcus and his friends are hooded, cuffed, and taken into the custody of the DHS. The Bay Bridge has been destroyed; our Harajuku Fun Madness group was so close to the bridge that DHS has confused them, along with thousands of other innocent citizens, of being suspected terrorists. After brutal imprisonment and interrogations, Marcus is let go with a warning. Apparently, the DHS has marked him as a person of interest, highly suspect in the threat to America. Marcus is never allowed to tell anyone (not even his parents) about his ordeal on Treasure Island where hundreds of citizens--a wounded Darryl included--are still locked up. Instead, along with Van and Jolu, Marcus comes up with a lie for his family and returns home relatively unwounded, harboring vengeance on the DHS.
But Marcus finds himself released into a San Francisco turned police state with even more surveillance cameras and other equipment and citizens being stopped on the street for random checks. What’s worse, parents, friends, and other family members of those still missing are presumed dead--caught in the Bay Bridge explosion--including Darryl. Fearful of new way of order and unsure of Darryl’s fate, Van and Jolu aren’t as eager to exact revenge--after only a few stunts together, Marcus’ friends decide it’s time to shape up and act like good citizens. Without their help, it’s up the Marcus to use the technology available to him and take down the Department of Homeland Security.
Just in case you aren’t familiar with the lingo or remain woefully technologically challenged, Marcus takes time out of his narrative to explain things like TOR, RFID (“arphids”) chips, botnets, cryptography, and LARPing. And, just for fun, when the narrative stops being educational and the reader runs across a potentially unknown or foreign activity or word, the teenage narrator’s patience shows through in a cute and completely interactive move between the book and the reader, Marcus suggests we look it up on Wikipedia or try it for ourselves.
I love the characters in this book--they’re intelligent and witty but still make mistakes in judgment, foreshortened by teenage maturity and lack of experience. But for all that, Doctorow knows how to write YA fantasy that speaks respectfully to its audience and presents a dynamic cast of personalities for an older crowd that does justice to the teenagers of today’s society.
The language and contemporary colloquialisms (is internet-speak considered colloquial?) remind me so much of William Gibson and the milestones of books like Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition that I couldn’t believe something like this hadn’t been written earlier. The youth in Marcus’ extended network of Xnetters are more than just competent with contemporary and futuristic extensions of those technologies, they’ve embraced the lifestyle (I’ve waited 8 years for IM flirting to become widely accepted by the mainstream--you know, “normal.”). A book like this should be a relief to children that have grown up never knowing the absence of computers, the internet, and cell phones.
But for someone like me, who didn’t get her first computer until she was 13, first internet access at 14 (around the time of Mac OS 8), first cell phone at 21, and met many marvelous people online when it was still kind of creepy and weird, this book is validation.
Doctorow’s plot-building is terrifying and suspenseful. I may be gullible, but the threat-mongering of the DHS and scathing treatment of U.S. citizens seemed well within the believable realm of alternate futures on the scale of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. I suggest everyone read this book--even if you think you won’t like it because it’s YA, SF, or both. Little Brother offers a “V for Vendetta” message of empowerment, self-education, and conviction of belief in the systems we as citizens have put into place that we, as voters, have the power to change. I’m especially glad this book is aimed at the pre-voter age of readers. Doctorow speaks directly to them, I think, in the epilogue and at those who might have become too jaded in their right to vote. Hopefully the epilogue and two Afterwords serve as a reminder to all of us (more specifically, Americans, since the book takes place in the U.S.) that as free citizens, we do ourselves justice by exercising our right to and participating in the act of voting.
And now, I’m off to microwave a frozen grape.
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