Sunday, March 29, 2009

Little Brother - Cory Doctorow

read - author

I read this as far back as November. That's how behind on write ups I am. I am a bad person.

Interesting read.

It's already been talked about so much, chances are you've all heard of it, and have an idea of what it's about. No further surprises there.

The thing I keep coming back to, when thinking about it, is that it's actually two books in the one object. There's the 'how to undermine your rights-eating government and have fun with gadgets on the way' instruction manual, which is quite nifty. It's a field of knowledge that Doctorow has clearly spent a lot of time hashing over, and has a lot of love for. The excitement that comes through when reading about LEDs and toilet rolls is palpable, and it's impossible not to catch a mischief bug and dream of starting the revolution right now. This section ties in with the politics of today's increasingly security-conscious world, and how that impinges on the individual. It's a scary topic, even sitting here in Australia with the Great Internet Filter being a bit of a joke. If anything, it's worth pushing this book on the unwary just to get them thinking, really thinking, about the state of the world and their place in it.

Then there's the fiction.

Which, to be honest, plays second fiddle to the how-to manual.

As a piece of story-telling, it isn't great. It's an adequate vehicle for getting the how-to manual around, but it didn't taste interesting at all. The prose was bland, and I never really engaged with Marcus. 365 pages is a long time to feel nothing for a character written in the first person. He never really felt like a 16 year old, to be honest. His internal monologue was too busy explaining basic surveillance principles and occasionally showing off his intellect for him to ever really be a person.

One thing that did bug, and still bugs me, was the treatment of race. Early on in Marcus's crusade, his Korean friend, Van, bows out. She can see the sort of risks he's taking, and her own family migrated to the US from Korea to escape such trouble. She's afraid, and rightly so, and flees not just from partaking in any subversive activities, but in having anything to do with Marcus at all. She's shown as letting fear rule her, thus letting the system win without a fight.

Jolu, Marcus's Mexican (I think? It's implied with names, but I don't have the ground knowledge to be sure) friend, bows out shortly after. Because he's brown, not white, and with the stunts Marcus is pulling, any trouble that comes their way will be worse for him than for white boy Marcus. In this exchange, Marcus comes across as the brave one, deserted by friends and going it alone anyway, and Jolu as being a touch cowardly.

Which leaves the world to be saved by the 16 year old middle class white boy.

Maybe I'm oversensitive. Maybe I've read it wrong. Maybe only 16 year old middle class white boys can save America from itself because they're the majority. Any fight staged by someone who is considered as part of the minority will only ever be seen as railing against that classification. If the complacent majority wake up and roar, then clearly there is true action to be taken.

And maybe that's just horseshit.

Regardless of story-telling flaws, this is a book that will not go quietly. It is a deceptive creature, hiding itself in the skin of a young adult book. You go in with your buffers down, safe under the young adult label, and come out with your eyes open. It's a natural reaction to, on leaving such a tale, shake yourself, and tell yourself that that sort of thing just wouldn't happen here.

But the book stays with you, and you will ask yourself, 'but why not?'

And you'll think about it, and keep thinking about it. And thus the book triumphs.

Verdict: Not a literary masterpiece, which writerTess is a tad disappointed about, as such important ideas should come dressed in the beautiful clothes they deserve. With the various levels it operates on, you'll take what you want from it.

(If you think my hands look funny in that photo...those aren't my hands. There's so much foot stomping on the front cover - and that is a great cover - I figured I'd get my feet happening too.)


  1. Great review - didn't really pick up on the middle class white boy saves the world part until you pointed it out. That may be because I'm a middle class white boy though. Despite that, I think I'd recommend it to any disaffected teenager. A top how-to manual.

  2. V. interesting. Although having finished reading your review I got distracted by how you managed to take a picture of your feet around that way... and never quite managed to get past that :-)

  3. I pretty well agree with your review. Except I have ethical issues. I think it's my age showing.

  4. Thanks Gareth. Doctorow comes across as being quite socially aware, which is why I continue to wonder if I've somehow read that wrong, but my gut tells me not.

    I ended up with foot cramps from that, heh. I'm impressed with my feet too.

    Gillian, which issues specifically? There are plenty I can see, Marcus is largely promoting anarchy and making life difficult for a lot of ordinary people as equally oppressed as he is.

  5. ArthurMiller@OUSalesperson1/4/09 10:43

    LEDs and toilet rolls
    That's such a tease.

    Except that it's just occurred to me that it's probably available free via the web.

    *has a look*

    It was so much more exciting when I didn't know what he made out of them.

  6. Heh. I'm sorry. Blame the inventor, not the messenger. :p