Little Brother: A Review

Little Brother by Cory DoctorowI don’t know what I was expecting when I opened Little Brother (2008) by Cory Doctorow. What I do know is that those expectations were largely colored by Doctorow’s appearances in various web-comic-strips on XKCD as a red cape wearing blogger who flies around in a hot air balloon.

Anyway, Marcus Yallow is a senior in San Francisco in the near future. He goes to Cesar Chavez High School which makes him one of the most surveilled people in the world. There’s a terrorist attack, he’s held captive in a Guantanamo Bay-esque prison, he’s released and then he decides to use his hacker skillz to get even and reclaim his city from the sinister clutches of Homeland Security.

And as action-packed as that sounds, the book never became more than a mildly interesting bit of tedious reading for me.

I’m fairly tech savvy, and I do worry about privacy and the like, but after finishing Little Brother the only piece of tech-related advice I retained from the story was that crypto is really awesome. Doctorow tries to embed useful information into the story, but it is either too basic to be interesting or too specialized and esoteric to make sense.

I’m not a teenager and I come from a liberal household and I was living in Greenwich Village during 9/11. I found it irritating that Doctorow’s character’s seemed to operate in a very binary way. Young people (for the most part) opposed the Department of Homeland Security while older people (for the most part) blithely accepted martial law. Really?

Finally, the real reason I disliked this book is that it just was not well put together. With all due respect to the importance of this novel’s subject matter, the writing was far from impressing. The descriptions of technology were almost always too long (and often too technical) to be seamlessly integrated into a novel.

The novel’s continuity verged on non-existent. For instance, Marcus makes a point of mentioning in the early pages that he is wearing boots for easy removal at metal detectors. Yet when he is released he receives his sneakers back with clean clothes. The core of the story–about Marcus’ missing friend–is left hanging for vast spans of the plot. Doctorow is at pains to create a core group for Marcus only to have them all removed from the story by the halfway point and then haphazardly mentioned in a rushed ending.

Marcus was also a bit annoying as a narrator–particularly when in the company of his girlfriend. Realistic depictions of teens aside, I was hoping for a bit more from characters (teen or otherwise) in a novel which is grounded in such extraordinary circumstances.

Also, and this isn’t really the book’s fault, but I truly disliked the cover.

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