Monday, July 5, 2010

"Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow

Summary: Marcus and his friends are cutting school when a terrorist attack on San Francisco occurs.  Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and others are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security, detained, and subjected to psychological torture and physical stress.  When Marcus is finally released, under threat not to tell anyone what happened, he decides to wage war on the DHS.  Using his technological skills, he begins the XNet, a secure Internet system, and recruits others to bring back personal liberty and privacy by foiling the DHS in their "protection" of the city.

Musings: Little Brother is a book that, for me, is both wonderfully unique and empowering and flawed.  I was immediately drawn in by Marcus' voice.  The combination of Doctorow's writing and Kirby Heyborne's narration made me think of Marcus as a modern techno-geek version of Ferris Bueller.  Like Ferris, Marcus has absolute contempt for the authority figures and monitoring structures in place in his life--and understandably so, as he has developed multiple ways of beating the system.  Because of this, Marcus is supremely self-assured to the point of being arrogant, but nonetheless, people want to follow him.  Marcus is not traditionally popular like Ferris, but his charisma and enthusiasm make him a natural leader among those who are drawn into his message.

When Marcus is tortured and broken by the DHS, he responds with anger and action, and most of the book follows Marcus' efforts to destroy the DHS' attempts at surveillance.  One of the great things about Little Brother is that not only is Marcus smart, but Doctorow assumes his readers are too.  Marcus engages in highly complex technological manipulation, and Doctorow explains the processes and science/math behind it in a manner that assumes his readers can, and will, understand.

However, the time spent explaining is also one of the drawbacks of the book.  Doctorow fully explains every aspect of the novel, from political and social explanations for why monitoring and tracking does not keep us safe to the math behind cryptography.  It's often interesting stuff, but because of it, the narrative takes secondary importance and often lags in terms of action. 

The explanations are clearly a part of Doctorow's own political agenda, and the author makes no attempts to disguise this aspect of the novel.  I did not have a problem with the politicking in and of itself, but the preaching too gets in way of the narrative.  I was reminded of the structure of books like Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, in which the novel is solely a form by which an ideology is conveyed.

The constant lecturing also started to bother me after awhile.  Doctorow's politics are largely my own, and I agree with much of the criticism he makes.  However, there is absolutely no room for disagreement in the novel, and the characters who do disagree--even on minor points--are portrayed as villains or morons.  I almost felt myself getting defensive, playing devil's advocate on positions I didn't even agree with, just to acknowledge that issues are never completely black and white.

Nonetheless, there are a lot of great things about Little Brother.  The book shows teenagers understanding and taking charge of their own lives in a real way--and making change in the greater world because of it.  It assumes young people can and will be concerned with more than video games and texting.  The book also exposes readers to very contemporary issues taking place in the United States right now.  We'd like to think that the U.S. would never detain and torture its own citizens or that restrictions in liberty will result in increased security, but Doctorow effectively challenges both of these.  In some ways it's a dystopian book taking place in contemporary society, and that's very chilling.

There's a ton more I could say about the book--about it's politics, characterization, and structure--but I think it's better to just read it.  I can think of some students now who would really love this book and for whom the novel might help inspire more political awareness.  The novel may be best for that age group who, perhaps unlike my cynical adult self, is more open to unrestrained belief in the power of what's right.


  1. I really enjoyed Little Brother and I think I let the lecturing slide because, like you, Doctorow's politics are similar to my politics, and I'm a bit of a tech geek myself so I loved learning all the ins and outs of what Marcus and his group were doing (also, love your comparison between Marcus and Ferris. Never thought of it before, but so true!)

    Doctorow's lecturing gets worse in his latest, For The Win. I think it lost me more than Little Brother because I totally got my fill of Marxism in college and don't need another run through of the basics. I also know nothing about economics and Doctorow spends a fair amount of time explaining the intricacies of various economic structures, but in a way that makes it feel like a dry college lecture rather than something interesting and integral to the plot.

  2. I was thinking that perhaps one of the reasons the "lecturing" got to me was because I listened to it on audiobook... if I was reading, I probably would have just read those sections faster and not been so bothered.

    I hadn't heard of For the Win yet. That's too bad that is rang "dry" for you since I would be interested in reading more of Doctorow's work. Maybe I'll try to get a student to read it first.