Review of “Little Brother” by Cory Doctorow

I’m trying to categorize this book, and I have no idea what category to use: Young Adult (YA)? Scifi? Dystopia? Fantasy? Cyberpunk? Or there is this designation by author Scott Westerfeld: “a rousing tale of techno-geek rebellion.” The author himself calls it a “young adult novel,” but I think that might not be descriptive enough. Look at the nature of the accolates it has garnered: 2008 Hugo and Nebula nominations (SciFi); Sunburst nomination (science fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism, and surrealism); Locus nomination (scifi, fantasy and horror); White Pine Award (YA); Prometheus Award (“futurist”); and the Indienet Award (YA). I’m thinking I like the “futurist” designation, changed just a little to “futureish.”

Let’s get to what this much-awarded book is about, and maybe you can judge for yourself what category should be used.

The story is set somewhere in the next few years. Marcus Yallow is a senior at Cesar Chavez High in San Francisco. He is also a very talented computer geek and hacker, who goes by the handle w1n5t0n (pronounced “Winston”). He and his friends Darryl, Vanessa (Van), and Jose Luis (JoLu) have skipped school to get a leg up on an Alternate Reality computer game competition in which they play as a team. When multiple terrorist bombs strike the city, blowing up the Bay Bridge and the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), the teens are out on the streets, and thus in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), separated, and taken in for interrogation.

While being questioned, Marcus tries to be clever, but experiences one of those moments we all have that makes us wish for a rewind button: esprit d’escalier (e-SPREE des-kal-i-YE). This is when you think of great retorts too late to say them. (This French expression literally means “staircase wit,” indicating that a person thinks of that perfect retort on his or her way out of the room.) [Marcus tells us later that “the opposite of esprit d’escalier is the way that life’s embarrassments come back to haunt us even after they’re long past.” Yes! Isn’t that the truth!]

But the DHS doesn’t appreciate cleverness or non-cooperation, and Marcus is tortured, forced to sit around in his own urine and vomit, and deprived of food. He says:

“They’d taken everything from me. First my privacy, then my dignity. I’d been ready to sign anything. I would have signed a confession that said I’d assassinated Abraham Lincoln.”

Ultimately, Marcus is released along with Van and JoLu, but he refuses to lie low. He vows to get Darryl free, and “to bring down the entire DHS.” He says, “That was crazy, even I knew it. But it was what I planned to do. No question about it.”

Soon enough, Marcus, using encrypted communications, secretly forms a movement of “Little Brothers” who start documenting abuses by the DHS and the Government (“Big Brothers”). It’s hard to know whom to trust, though, and who might get him sent back to “Gitmo-by-the-Bay.”

One person he decides to trust is Ange Carvelli, a girl that tantalizes him with her aggressiveness. Another is “Zeb,” someone who escapes from the DHS prison and assures him Darryl is still alive. And importantly, there is Barbara Stratford, an investigator reporter for the free weekly newspaper, Bay Guardian.

But going against the government with all of its resources is not easy. It’s not only dangerous, but seems like a losing battle. Marcus can’t let himself give up: as the guest writer Andrew Huang says in the afterward:

“We win freedom by having the courage and the conviction to live every day freely and to act as a free society, no matter how great the threats are on the horizon.”

Discussion: A lot of space in the book is consumed by Marcus’s explanations of security systems, hacking, and cryptography. It probably isn’t necessary, but the passion for the material fits with Marcus’s personality, and at the same time helps to educate the reader on issues that we should be aware of as citizens in any event. But you can “zone out” of this part if you want, and not miss much.

There are a number of interesting philosophical issues that stem from the characters’ debates on the need to prevent terrorism versus the need to protect individual freedoms (and this is also the theme of the book in a nutshell). For example, Marcus’s father believes that if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t worry about government intrusion into your life; it is more important to catch terrorists. But Marcus counters: even if you don’t do anything illegal, isn’t privacy worth something? Marcus says: “It’s not about doing something shameful. … It’s about your life belonging to you.”

Some good aspects of the book: Marcus is charming (but not too much so) and his behavior and voice seem authentic for a seventeen-year-old. I loved way the author brought San Francisco to life in the story. I could picture the streets and buildings and parks from his smoothly integrated descriptions. I also loved the references and cites to actual books that Marcus was reading. Finally, I think the author does a great service by warning about the dangers to freedom posed by the threat of terrorism, which can be used to justify authoritarian policies.

The negative: there’s a lot about encryption, and if that’s not your thing, it could present a barrier to your enjoyment. (But again, you can safely skip it and it won’t hurt your understanding of the story.)

Rating: 4/5

Published by Tor, 2008

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20 Responses to Review of “Little Brother” by Cory Doctorow

  1. Your reading spectrum is simply amazing to me, Jill! You’ve recently reviewed BELONG TO ME, HELLHOUND ON HIS TRAIL, and now LITTLE BROTHER. I love it! I wish my reading was as interesting and as varied as yours. I can’t say that this one would appeal to me, but this last statement from your review cracked me up:

    “The Government villains are a little too bad to be believable, even by someone as jaded as I am.”

    Love it and keep it up!

  2. Nymeth says:

    I can see what you mean about the moviesque villains, but I think that the overall philosophy and politics of the story weren’t oversimplified at all, and I really appreciated that. Doctorow comes across as an author who really respects his reader’s intelligence. And I actually loved the encryption bits! Perhaps that’s my inner computer geek speaking 😉 Also, he made me want to learn coding. Yep, there’s definitely a computer geek hidden somewhere in there 😛

  3. bermudaonion says:

    This sounds like a book for the males in my life! I heard Doctorow speak at BEA and he was very entertaining.

  4. Trisha says:

    I have had this one on my wish list for long enough that I even tried to “spontaneously” buy it in my local B&N, but wouldn’t you know it, they didn’t have it! I think I’ll just have to ignore the buying ban and grab it online. Great review!

  5. Margot says:

    This genre is no where to be seen in my radar but I was with you as you described the plot. But your warning about all the encryption stuff told me it’s not for me.

  6. This reminds me of the labeling designated for Computers in the Dewey Decimal System in the 000 Section. No one knew what classification to place it in. It is always funny trying to explain to my 5th graders why The Loch Ness Monster and The Bermuda Triangle is in close proximity to Computers.

    The genre is undefined as yet, but probably will not be for long.

    You are so right about this:
    “Finally, I think the author does a great service by warning about the dangers to freedom posed by the threat of terrorism, which can be used to justify authoritarian policies.”

    Thanks for the splendid review!

  7. Aarti says:

    Ooh, great review, Jill! I think I’ve heard of this one- or at least, the cover is very familiar to me. It sounds like one I would not pick up on my own, but now that I might enjoy.

  8. I was in the middle of reading another of Doctorow’s books,”Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”, on my iTouch of all places, when the darn think suffered a technical difficulty.
    But I did read enough to find him a very good and entertaining writer.

  9. Sandy says:

    Yeah, but it is fun to think of the government as the monsterish evil-doers! I think this book sounds like alot of fun. Hell hath no fury like a pissed off teenage techno-geek!

  10. Julie P. says:

    I heard Mr. Doctorow speak at BEA and I found him to be very interesting. I still haven’t read any of his books yet though!

  11. Jenners says:

    I can just never predict what book you are going to be writing about next on your blog. You really do mix it up, don’t you?

    I really love the explanation of esprit d’escalier, by the way.

  12. Staci says:

    My son Marcus loved this book and everything about this one appealed to him. Excellent review of this book Jill!!

  13. Lisa says:

    I just love that we’re getting another generation of Doctorow writers!

  14. Bookjourney says:

    I have been hearing about this author around the blogesphere so had to check out your review. I have no idea when I will get to read him, but plan to some day!

  15. zibilee says:

    My husband and son read this book when it first came out, and absolutely raved about it. At one time, it was available to read for free on the web, but I am not sure if that is the case now. I must read this one! I bet it would be really interesting. It’s not my usual genre at all, but it sounds really good!

  16. stacybuckeye says:

    LOL! I’m jaded too 🙂 I’d going to look for this one because it is a topic I find interesting…and maddening!

  17. Alyce says:

    I was curious about this book – I remember seeing reviews of it last year, but had forgotten what it was about. I generally like dystopian fiction, but as you said this sounds like it defies classification. Those villains must have been pretty bad to be almost unbelievable.

  18. Belle says:

    I actually love the geekspeak, hacking and encryption stuff! I borrowed this from the library a while back but never got around to reading it. It’s on my iPhone now, so there’s a good chance I’ll be reading it soon.

  19. Jeanne says:

    I love this book, although I did zone out, as you say, on some of the computer bits. One of the impressive things, to me, is that my computer geek husband read it and says all the computer stuff actually does work. I’m always happy to hear of more people reading it, especially young people; we have an extra copy at our house in case one of my teenagers needs a birthday gift.

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