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.
First, the story in a nutshell: Marcus and his friends, fellow Bay Area high school students and bright young hackers all, are playing hooky from school one day and happen to be out on the streets when terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge. Thousands die, the country loses its collective shit, and overnight, San Francisco turns into a police state. Marcus and his friends are swept up in the aftermath, and he becomes an unwilling criminal and revolutionary.
Let's the cover the good first:
Marcus is a very likeable protagonist. He's a smart kid, and the reader will enjoy his exploits, his narrow escapes, and his outwitting the authorities. But he's a kid, so he makes mistakes. He's brave and he knows right from wrong, but when he's threatened and abused by big scary authority figures who have absolute power over him, he finds out the hard way just how easily anyone can be broken. The guilt and shame he feels over this stays with him for the rest of the book, and Doctorow really captures the raw sense of humilitation and powerlessness.
The story is fast-paced with plenty of tension. There is also non-political drama -- horny teens in close proximity and facing genuine danger act like horny teens will.
Doctorow doesn't disappear the parents in the story (a common failing of YA novels).
This is a book for getting your geek on. I have more than a passing interest in this field, so all the infodumps on hacking, public key encryption, data mining, and so on, was stuff I already knew, but it was presented in a reasonably interesting way. Obviously Doctorow is hoping readers will be encouraged to learn more and foster a new generation of geeks and hackers. All the technology in this book is real (except the gait-recognition software, which is near-future at most), as are the flaws he describes.
The author has an agenda and he's explicit about it, but he makes a compelling argument, bringing up not just the ideological but the practical problems inherent in instituting a surveillance society in which both dissent and exposing the vulnerabilities of the system are villified and/or criminalized. Little Brother is largely a novelized version of arguments made by Bruce Schneier (who wrote one of the afterwords, and whose Crypto-Gram newsletter I highly recommend), as well as in David Brin's The Transparent Society.
Contrary to my fears, Doctorow doesn't go all anarcho-libertarian, despite the strong "Stick it to the Man!" vibe. To get a feel for Doctorow's politics, he quotes most heavily from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; in this book (as in real life), citing the Bill of Rights when people are arguing that "terrorism changed everything!" can seem positively radical.
The most important point I hope readers take away from this book is "Who watches the watchers?" The government is going to surveil people, and to an extent, it has to -- there are genuine threats and preventing them will require a higher degree of intrusion than we'd like at times. (This is a point I think Doctorow completely glided over.) The threat is not the government watching us, but the government watching us without our knowledge or ability to watch them back. (Consider all the states who are responding to complaints and lawsuits over police abuse caught on camera by making it illegal to film cops.) This, again, is the main point made in Brin's The Transparent Society. Most people are fine with the government being able to investigate, question, even detain people, as long as there is oversight to prevent the sort of police state tactics seen in this book. Once you have secret courts, warrantless searches and arrests, and carte blanch to do "whatever it takes," it becomes all too easy to disappear people, and for the authorities to dish out retribution to "suspects" just because they pissed them off.
That said, Doctorow did not make his case as convincingly as he could have for several reasons.
One was I think the major narrative failing in the book: terrorists blew up the Bay Bridge. Not only do they manage to completely destroy a 7 kilometer bridge during the morning commute, but they succeed in simultaneously blowing the BART tunnel that goes under the Bay beneath it.
The terrorists are even identified as Al Qaida. But no evidence is ever presented, and there is no description at all of any legitimate investigation going on, nor is it ever explained how they pulled off such an operation -- one that is more complex and sophisticated than the 9/11 attacks and which generates a higher body count. They just do it, and the rest of the book is about the authoritarian overreaction. Real terrorists are barely mentioned for the rest of the book -- it's as if they existed solely to provoke a police state crackdown.
Now, Little Brother isn't about terrorists or fighting terrorism, it's about defending civil liberties and the trade-offs we make between liberty and security, and all the ways your privacy can be violated. But while acknowledging the dangers of letting fear and paranoia destroy us, I think it cheapens the point to pretend that people aren't reacting to a genuine threat.
Which brings me to my second major objection: perhaps this is because it's a YA novel and Doctorow wanted to present things in sharp contrast for his readers, but the contrast was turned all the way up to "black and white." Marcus and his friends are fighting the good fight; everyone else exists only to present straw man arguments to be knocked down. Marcus's father is so shaken by the attacks that he supports everything the government does and views protesters as disloyal terrorist sympathizers. At school, a teacher who allows a discussion about the issues is immediately removed, replaced by someone who proceeds to tell a class full of high school seniors that the Bill of Rights is outdated, as if she were lecturing children. One of Marcus's classmates practically salivates at the opportunity to join the Hitler Youth. The Department of Homeland Security goes from zero to Stormtrooper in a matter of hours, and the officers Marcus encounters beat and torture random teenagers purely out of spite. And just for good measure, there's a scene with the DHS honchos talking to the President's chief advisor in which they practically cackle over how they are using the attack on San Francisco for their own political advantage.
In other words, the bad guys (not the terrorists, but the government) are 100% pure fascist evil. There are no reasoned or moderate arguments to give Marcus's side even a moment's pause (and since the authorities have no qualms about waterboarding innocent teenagers, it's a pretty one-sided argument -- of course "moderation" seems pretty silly).
Inasmuch as Doctorow is hoping to motivate and equip young people to advocate the pro-civil rights POV, I think he's doing readers a disservice by presenting all opponents as mustache-twirling fascists who dive right past the slippery slope and hit the bottom headfirst (and therefore don't have a credible position that might be more challenging to confront).
All of that being said, misgivings aside... this is a book I'd recommend to anyone. As a YA dystopian sci-fi novel (and only as that), it's far better than average. As a vehicle for the author's ideology, it lays out the issues clearly (if starkly and simplistically); if you mostly agree with the author, you'll find the resolution upbeat and possibly even inspiring. If you disagree with the author... well, I think it should still give you something to think about, and you can still appreciate the story for its own sake. (Unless you are one of those people who actually thinks rendition is a good idea, in which case you should read something less intellectually challenging.)
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.