Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow is better known these days for his opinions than for his fiction, a dangerous place for a novelist to be. Those opinions appear daily at Boing Boing, where the chorus of approval -- and some complaint; it is the Internet, after all -- is immediate and loud. So when word came out that he'd turned his hand to a novel about some of his obsessions -- freedom of information, the right to privacy, and the current "anti-terrorist" nanny state -- no one was particularly expecting a fair and balanced treatment. Little Brother's status as Doctorow's first book for the Young Adult market did nothing to dispel those expectations -- adult writers have been stomping all over YA for the last few decades when they have A Message to promote.

So the first thing to note about Little Brother is that it stacks the deck in an unexpected way: near-future San Franciscan high school student Marcus Yallow, who snuck out of school to play an Artificial Reality Game with his friends, is caught up in a Department of Homeland Security dragnet very early in the book, and shanghaied to a secret prison. So much is to be expected, yes?

But this is in the immediate aftermath of a major terrorist attack: persons unknown have just blown up the Bay Bridge, and thousands are dead. Little Brother takes place in the weeks and months afterward, in a city that's just been hit, and hit hard.

Let me repeat that: the DHS is running around abusing civil liberties and locking people up -- we all expected that in a Doctorow YA novel called Little Brother -- but they're doing it because of a 9/11-level attack. And so a lot of the readers of this book will feel that some degree of panic and overreaction is acceptable, or at least expected.

I settled back at that point, because it was clear Doctorow wasn't going to be satisfied with kicking around a straw man for four hundred pages; Little Brother sees him create a world where repressive government measures would be substantially more justified than our own...and still demolishes all of the arguments in favor of repression and fear.

But let me back up a bit: before we get to Marcus's incarceration, we first have to sit through a chapter or two of infodumps about every piece of technology or newish idea Marcus encounters. He doesn't explain how the BART works, but he does feel the need to go into detail on the security arrangements on his cellphone. It feels like he's explaining everything created after 1995, which made me wonder if Doctorow was really writing for teens. (I can't imagine that they enjoy having everything they already know explained to them.) That opening reads more like a dispatch from teen-land for clueless oldsters.

(The first fifty pages or so of Little Brother also function as a fictionalized catalog of the things liberal, geeky Westerners thought were terribly cool and/or important in late 2007; it'll be a very interesting time capsule in twenty-five years. Doctorow settles down into his characters at about that point, though, and what infodumps follow are more central to the plot.)

So Marcus and his friends are captured -- "arrested" isn't the appropriate word, since it's not by the cops and they certainly don't have their rights read to them -- roughly questioned, and Marcus is set free before too long. But he soon finds that the mildly repressive society he had known, the security measures that he's come to know (and counter whenever necessary) are being replaced by tighter restrictions and a paranoid bunker mentality on the part of San Francisco's new federal overlords.

For quite a while, I thought Little Brother took place not only in the future -- it's set in the school year of 2009-2010, from internal evidence, and a never-named Republican white male is president -- but also in an alternate world where all of the old-fashioned media in San Francisco are run by right-wing fascists who love security theater and hate kids. That didn't fit what I knew of that city, but Marcus is young and hot-headed, so he tends to think of the world as being made up of slim, cool, young smart people (his friends and followers) and nasty ugly old fascists (his deluded father, and, by extension, every other adult). He turns out to be not entirely right in that assumption by the end, which was a nice touch. Looking back at Little Brother, the local politicians also seem to have completely disappeared. This is presumably because Doctorow wanted to both write a story about one kid against the system and to set that story in our recognizable world, but it made my agitprop meter buzz like crazy once I noticed.

To be fair to Doctorow, Little Brother is a first-person novel; it all comes to us through the mind and prejudices of Marcus Yallow. Marcus is a good kid: thoughtful, committed, and only about as bullheaded and self-righteous as is normal for someone his age. Writing in his voice allows Doctorow to rail against various nasty surveillance and security measures -- gait-recognition cameras in the schools, random police checkpoints on roads and mass-transit, police informants on every corner -- in the strongest possible terms. Marcus is a teenager, with the usual teenager's impatience with everything in the world -- he wants things to happen now, and he hasn't been worn down by a thousand petty complaints like those of us older than him. But he can be like a raw nerve, all feeling and pain, and there were times when I wished he would calm down a bit (or, worse, that Doctorow would stop ratcheting through the worst possible reactions of both sides to every new situation).

To get back to the plot, Marcus wasn't in that secret DHS prison very long, but he's there long enough to become radicalized -- just learning firsthand that there is such a thing as a secret DHS prison in his backyard is enough for that. So he might have been vaguely interested in methods of sneaking out of school before, just to hang out with his friends and play games, but now he wants to smash all of the surveillance and security apparatus, because it hurt him. So he works up a secret network to connect like-minded kids, which leads to DHS moles in that group, so he moves to something more like a classical cell network, and so on.

If you're not equally passionate -- and that's very passionate -- about the same causes Marcus is, and as devoted as he is to damaging a wide variety of security procedures, Marcus Yallow can be a little hard to completely agree with. He is very much a teenager -- self-absorbed and utterly convinced of his own rectitude. Little Brother is on his side, but that doesn't mean everything he does is smart or right, or that his rhetoric is useful or positive. And just because the other side is doing stupid, counterproductive things doesn't mean that Marcus's efforts to thwart those efforts are smart or productive. And the ways that the outside media twist his words and ideas against his cause is very familiar in this election season -- Doctorow knows well the ways of spin.

(As a side note, I wish Doctorow hadn't explicitly had another character comment on Marcus's whiteness halfway through; Marcus is relatively common as an African-American name, and keeping Marcus an everyman had power. My mental image of him was fuzzy, but I thought it at least half-likely that he was black, and I was sorry to lose that possibility.)

I've been avoiding talking about the plot, because it's basically a spiral -- Marcus (aka M1k3y, his far-too-1337 online alter ego) monkeywrenches some stupid DHS policy, the kids rejoice, the adults grump, things get worse and more oppressive in San Francisco with new DHS polices, and then we start again. Along the way, he loses touch with his original friends from the beginning of the book, and makes new, more radical connections, including a hawt girlfriend. I assumed Doctorow did this deliberately; it follows the standard pattern for radicalization. Marcus is not actually a terrorist, since he's not killing people, but -- and I write this the day after the Sean Bell verdict -- I can't believe that all of these manipulated confrontations of ordinary citizens with angry, armed men end peacefully. By the law of averages, his plans would have led to at least a couple of shooting incidents, and probably some deaths.

As I said, even if you agree with Marcus's ideals -- even if you go along with Doctorow that his fictional version of the DHS is evil and needs to be stopped -- there can be a lot of collateral damage along the way. (And Marcus, as a teenager, is not all that good at noticing.)

But Little Brother is a bracing read, a classic "if-this-goes-on" tale of things that keep getting worse as well as a clear vision for standing up peacefully for what you believe in. It's a major SF novel by an important writer, published at exactly the right time. I hope a lot of teenagers do read it -- as well as people old enough to vote this year.


RobB said...

Great Review Andrew. You mentioned a few things I hadn't considered in my review.

Like you, through a majority of the novel I was getting the vibe that Marcus was black, and was surprised when it was 'revealed' he was white. I don't know how much that changed my perception of him. I must have gone back and forth with myself a dozen times on whether I should mention that aspect in my review, but decided against it.

Brad Holden said...

This is a really interesting review Andrew, critical and thoughtful.

ThRiNiDiR said...

I agree. A great and insightful review, if a bit longwinded and disjointed at times (but I find doing the same mistakes, so I can't really blame you for this;)).

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