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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book Read: Little Brother

I know I'm at risk at coming off as some kind of anti-Doctorow nut here, with several back posts complaining about his complaining about DRM, a very recent panning of Someone Comes To Town and now a review of his latest. That's not really fair, as I truly enjoy his shorts and thought Magic Kingdom was quite good.

However, Little Brother doesn't really get added into that particular pile.

Spoilers contained herein.

There is, at least, a focused plot and a consistent theme - so that's a major improvement over Someone Comes To Town. Doctorow has managed to couch his preachings into a character where such dialogue makes sense. While there are times when the book reads as if the main character, Marcus, is suddenly overwhelmed with the need to speak to some kind of literary fourth wall - the themes are still relevant to the novel in general.

Whether you find the technical soliloqouies of value is another thing, however, and completely depends on your personal level and/or tolerance for such geek topics as basic cryptography and Live Action Role Playing (though Doctorow probably deserves credit for probably having the first character who LARPs get laid in a mainstream novel). The setting is modern and much of the technical topics are pretty lightweight - and remembering that this was published by Tor Teen, the book is something of a primer for being a technogeek for tweens.

Occasionally the technical aspects backfire completely, however. At one point it is indicated that Microsoft started giving away the next generation of Xbox, called the Xbox Universal, for free. In Cory's world, this is an evil corporate trick to sell DRM controlled software at high prices, which of course (because Cory controls Cory's world) backfires completely and everyone ends up playing free community developed games on unlocked Xboxen instead.

Yeah. Right. This particular technofantasy would be more innocent if it didn't become such a central aspect of the story. Still, unlike Someone Comes To Town's regression into WiFi - most of the Xnet subplot doesn't hijack the novel in general. An often repeated portion, sure, but can be somewhat sidetracked with applied suspension of disbelief.

No, the real problem of Little Brother is the lopsided support for the "rebellion" that becomes Marcus' prime motivator. First, it requires the reader to blindly accept the fact that the United States government turns into a brutal dictatorship willing to torture and disappear high school students in less time than it has taken to read this post so far. In other words, that the government is already capable of doing this and is just waiting for an excuse to start flying minors to Syria.

And while many of Marcus' attempts to fight the Department of Homeland Security work quite well narratively, the story just assumes you're onboard with the entirety of the argument from the first word.

A semi-major spoiler - but I think an important lynchpin to the book's central fault ... at one point Marcus launches a city wide plan which causes multiple traffic problems and is later reported to cost the city more than the original terrorist plot. Marcus takes this as a measure of success.

Let's examine that carefully. This plan doubles the cost of a city after a terrorist strike, changes nothing in DHS policy except that the DHS ends up getting stronger in the long run, in some ways could be seen as a terrorist attack itself ... and the reader is supposed to cheer on the main character?

In other words, Little Brother fails at creating any kind of discourse or dialogue on the potentially thorny questions about security, privacy and the use of technology in a post-9/11 world. It dives in with both feet with all of its assumptions on page one and ignores all contradictory evidence. Actually, in many ways Marcus' actions make matters worse for San Francisco, do not resolve any major issues with the DHS, and only by intervention of the media and some insanely convenient legal deus ex machina at the end does he emerge a hero. Not exactly a shining example of technical liberty.

In the end, Little Brother is an somewhat entertaining exercise in talking about modern topics which really do deserve discussion ... but not a particularly good one. Not highly recommended, though as usual Doctorow offers his book for free online if you want to check it out yourself.

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