Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Review: Little Brother

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother takes place in the very near future, and stars Marcus, (AKA w1n5t0n, AKA m1k3y), a high school kid who is smart, techno-savvy (read: skilled hacker) and good at beating the system.

One day he and three other friends skip school to play Harajuku Fun Madness, an ARG (alternate reality game...those kids do the durndest things these days), that involves puzzle solving, trivia, scavenger hunting and other fun things. While playing, a massive terrorist attack comparable to the 9/11 hits Marcus' hometown of San Francisco. The Bay bridge is blown up, not the Golden Gate bridge, but the more strategic and functional one. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his friends are taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security and taken off to a secret prison.

Like many seventeen year olds, Marcus is a bit of a wise-ass, even in the face of serious government types, and his defiance brings unwanted attention down on him. After a few days of cruel treatment, and incessant questioning, Marcus is released to find his city a mere shadow of it's former self. In his absence San Fran has become a police state where everyone is treated as a potential terrorist, and the DHS has taken control. Vowing payback for his treatment, Marcus decides to take down the DHS himself.

Knowing he is being carefully monitored by DHS, Marcus uses his hacker skills to create a functioning computer and web server out of an XBOX. Then, sort of like the spreading of a virus, gets other people his age to do the same. Using this secure server, and a bevvy of other savvy tricks, Marcus begins his revolution, where no one over 25 is trusted, (boy did that make me feel old!), and Little Brother is watching Big Brother.

Technically a Young Adult novel, but it never felt how I pictured a YA novel to be. It has swearing, sex, violence and torture which are very adult themes, however Little Brother is far more than that. It is an extremely thought provoking novel, with events that could easily be front page headlines under the right circumstances. Doctorow creates an extremely feasible and believable near-future that in many ways made my skin crawl. In some ways this is a paranoid book, well, at least it made me paranoid, but instead of coming off as a paranoid-anti-government book, it has more of a freedom of speech, freedom of technology feel to it. Mind you, that feel is very low key. If you want to find those things in Little Brother you can, but Doctorow never loses sight of the story, and this novel never once comes across as preachy.

This book has many great things in its favor: great, believable, fleshed out characters, fantastic plotting, and a very cool vibe, but what stood out as the real star for me was the pacing. There is no "getting into" this book, no slow period of adjustment where you learn about the characters and the plot...the plot simply takes off and never really lets up. Doctorow doesn't waste any time or space. He crafted a very solid novel that is a joy to read. I couldn't put this one down, and when I did, I couldn't wait to pick it back up again.

As one of the least technically savvy humans on earth, there were times when I felt lost as Marcus used or created some technical wonder that I had never heard of. However, I was quickly clued in as Doctorow did a fantastic job of describing these things in ways that were easy to get the gist of. This required a bit of techno-speak, but never too much so that it bogged down the story.

Little Brother is my first taste of Cory Doctorow's writings, but I am an instant fan. I don't really have any complaints about this novel...maybe it was too enjoyable? Any way you hack it, this is a great book, and I give it my full recommendation.

Grade: A

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