Author: Cory Doctorow
First Line: I’m a senior at Cesar Chavez High in San Francisco’s sunny Mission District, and that makes me one of the most surveilled people in the world.
I have been looking forward to reading Little Brother ever since I received it as a birthday gift over a year ago. One thing led to another, as they usually do, and it took me far too long to actually get to it, however. While I haven’t read any of Doctorow’s longer works, I’ve read a bunch of his shorter pieces at various places around the net, so I was well aware of his personal stance on privacy and the internet before I actually started turning the pages of Little Brother. To say that Doctorow is an internet privacy advocate is an understatement, and I was concerned that LB was going to be little more than a thinly disguised treatise railing against the Patriot Act and other governmental programs that threaten American Civil Liberties. Thankfully, LB proved me only partly prescient.
Marcus, a High School senior, is a computer wiz who, following a terrorist attack on The Golden Gate Bridge, gets wrapped up in government conspiracy and social rebellion. With obvious parallels to Orwell’s 1984, Little Brother is a kind of Young Adult Thriller as Marcus slowly organizes opposition to and outright rebellion against the Department of Homeland Security and our Government’s policies on privacy and the war on terror. Overall, the story is fast-paced and engaging, with Marcus’s growth and character development easily at the forefront of the many issues on which the novel focuses.
This is very much an “us vs. them” novel, with a bit of a twist. Even with the terrorist bombing in the opening chapters, the terrorists themselves are not the “them.” Being told from Marcus’ first-person PoV, “us” is easily seen to be the young, technologically savvy generation coming of age in a world of instant access streams of information. The “them” is, quite simply, everyone else. In one chapter it’s the government, in the next it’s Marcus’ parents, in the next it’s the high school officials. In many ways, it’s quite an accurate portrayal, if memory serves, of my own view of the world when I was in high school some 25 (“ish”) years ago.
Doctorow’s handling of a teenage PoV was quite well done. Concerns were immediate and, especially early on, very self-serving. I thought it made Marcus at times even a bit of an anti-hero, which I think is a positively wonderful trait. It fell through at some points, but I found overall his journey from self-absorbed teen to socially-aware-young-adult moderately compelling. There were times when reading I thought that Doctorow was a bit heavy-handed with his views on privacy, but upon reflection I don’t necessarily believe that to be the case. These views, after all, were being discovered by Marcus over the course of the story and were, for him, all-encompassing as he progressed in his own journey of self-discovery.
Doctorow’s secondary characters, however, are not nearly as interesting and do not share the same type of development. All are rather two-dimensional and serve very obvious and very specific functions within the novel, most often tied around a single plot element. Their concerns are focused on the black and white extremes of the issues Doctorow is exploring in his narrative and seem to be designed only to provide a point or counterpoint to the development of Marcus. Most important, I think, is the lack of resolution for so many of the secondary characters. Their storylines are left dangling as they simply disappear or are given only the briefest of mentions in the final pages.
Another minor issue I took with the storytelling is the number of technological info-dumps. While I think some of it was likely necessary, these sections, sometimes full chapters, felt clumsy in their implementation and brought the typically fast-paced narrative to a screeching halt. Additionally, these were the sections where Doctorow’s authorial hand was most clearly revealed.
All that said, I think Little Brother is a great read. Moreover, I think it’s an important read, and not only for young adults. Too often, I think, we take our privacy for granted, and while Doctorow’s story focuses only on one side of the privacy argument, there are implications that can be learned by both camps. I would have liked to see more exploration into the grey areas of personal privacy, more questions asked that didn’t have answers so readily available, but all in all Little Brother is a fine update to its Orwellian precessor.