Friday, January 29, 2010

*book clubbing* Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

After an insane and sad mix-up involving the internet eating emails, Mandy and I are back at it with reviews and chats about Cory Doctorow's award-winning YA novel Little Brother. Which, incidentally, you can now download for I-kid-you-not free, in addition to checking it out of your local library or buying yourself a hard copy.

My review:

So, Little Brother. There were parts that I really liked, and parts that I didn't like. But overall, my impression is very good: this is an Important Book, one that a lot more people need to be reading. It helps that it's very readable. It occurs to me that most of this review will be about some of the problems I had with the novel, but I want to be clear: I did enjoy it, and I will recommend it. What seem like problems to me actually all stem from the point of view of the narration, and so many will probably not find them as jarring as I did. It's not something Doctorow did wrong, it's that the point of view is completely consistent and strong throughout and sometimes I wanted more.

I would call this is a dystopian novel, although I'm not sure that's quite right. It's really, frighteningly close to what we've already got. There but for the grace of intelligent people like Cory Doctorow go we, my friends. Take a big, devastating terrorist attack and a giant, scary overreaction by the feds, and there are teenagers being disappeared for being teenagers, and privacy being stripped from us all. It doesn't take much to extrapolate from our current situation to get to where Doctorow has put his hero Marcus.

What I didn't like was that some of the villains were a little flat. The big villain, the Department of Homeland Security, is faceless, implacable and terrifying in the way it is supposed to be; but the individuals, the class bully, the obnoxious VP, the sadistic interrogator, all were kind of ... meh. I didn't see them as much but strawmen in a lot of ways, people for Marcus to fight against so that he could win and explain why he was right in the process.

The problem with the flatness of the villains is that it does lend an air of unreality to the big problems Marcus takes on. A number of times I ended up thinking, "really? really, reasonable people would let that sort of thing happen? really, reasonable reporters would gobble up the party line like that?" and I think that can be dangerous, because this book is all about not being complacent. I don't plan to ever get too political on this blog (it would get ranty and unpleasant for all involved), but this is a really political book. It forces one to be political, to think about what's happening in the world, and to be a little more vigilant than most of us have gotten used to being.

The only other problem I had was that occasionally Marcus would go off on tangents about various things related to his interests. Sometimes this is cool, but often it feels a little heavy-handed. That said, I don't think it was outside his character at all. The story is told in first person and Marcus is an earnest, righteously furious and very smart teenager. He wants the reader to understand his motivations, and he shares his various geeky loves with the reader too. So while I
found some of those interludes a little distracting, I don't think it was out of character -- it just took me out of the story.

Otherwise, as an intro to almost-dystopian YA lit, this was a good one. It was thrilling, I rooted for the good guys, some of it was quite original (I love the distraction Marcus came up with towards the end) and this book is absolutely an important one to read. It helps that it's a very readable, very engaging book.


This time, Mandy and I tried using for a slightly different experience. What follows is our entire chat with only minor modifications to improve the flow. Enjoy!

Mandy: I liked your review, it was spot-on.

kiirstin: Thank you! I liked yours as well. You seemed to focus more on the technological aspects than I did. I didn't realize, for example, that gait recognition tech was something people were already working on.

Mandy: I was inspired to do some further reading, which is what I hope people would do after reading the book. My further reading was Google related, but I love that Cory included some fantastic resources at the end of his book for anyone interested.

kiirstin: Absolutely. And the essays by others at the end, I thought that was a neat touch.

Mandy: Gait-recognition technology sounds so silly after reading LB. It makes no sense. I love that LB made me question something that might otherwise seem like an okay technology to develop.

kiirstin: I thought he was very tech neutral, in some ways. Not necessarily saying "this is a bad technology" but "it is stupid to use technology in this way." Also, it made me decide I'd better password protect my cell phone.

Mandy: Many times throughout the book I was like "hunh?" about the techno-talk, but I'm used to that in SciFi. What is so cool about LB, and "mundane SciFi" in general, is that the techno-talk is not techno-babble; terms made up and used for plot purposes in some SciFi.

All of his explanations made perfect sense and were well researched. He also explained things very vividly.

kiirstin: Which all leads to that creepy "um, yeah, this could actually happen. yikes" feeling, because the technology behind the story was so established.

Mandy: Completely. You could see it all happening. LB did make me more paranoid in general--which was a big theme in the book. It also made me want to hack my Xbox with my zero hacker knowledge, but exuberant interest.

kiirstin: I think making you a bit paranoid's exactly what it was supposed to do. Even the times where I felt it might be a bit over the top, part of me was whispering that it wasn't really that over the top.

And then there was that thing on the border with the SciFi author who got the crap kicked out of him by border guards, like, a week after I finished the book.

Mandy: I didn't know about that. Who was the author?

kiirstin: Dr. Peter Watts. The first article I read about it was at Making Light. The comments on that post are really wonderful to read, too. Cory Doctorow was the first one to really break the news about that one. Dr. Watts is a friend of his.

Mandy: Cory is the coolest.

I love that his book was impeccably researched. He really knows his stuff. It's great to see someone who has a real message and gets it across, even in fiction.

Not to denigrate fiction, of course, as I love reading it. A heavy dose of non-fiction is great, though, and a bit of a breath of fresh surveilled air compared to many contemporary YA books.

kiirstin: There's a lot of fluff out there, which of course is wonderful to read too, but LB definitely had meat to it.

He just felt so familiar with the subject material. Although... if I can admit... that was one of the small things that kind of bugged me every once in a while.

Mandy: At times it was too much for me, as well.

kiirstin: It was just sometimes that there was such a clear agenda. While I agree wholeheartedly with the agenda, it was still quite noticeable.

Mandy: I agree. It was a little heavy-handed. I did like how he brings up the question, a few times in the book, how can you tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys? Both know how to hack but the good guys are the ones who use it for a "good" purpose. However, who's the judge of that?

He touches on this a few times. I would have liked him to bring this to the fore a little more in the book.

kiirstin: Oh yes! Definitely. I liked what he did with that but I did want a bit more. The thing with Marcus' father was interesting -- I think any parent reading that would understand Marcus' father's perspective perfectly.

He was like the walking question "How much freedom and privacy would you give up to protect your family." And I *know* for many people it would be "all of it" except that without a bigger picture it's hard to recognize that by giving up those things, you're also harming your family.

Mandy: And the question of security was huge in the book. But when does the need for a sense of security become a means to possibly "evil" ends? Can we ever attain the type of security we're so set on keeping?

kiirstin: For example, how far are we willing to go just to catch wankers who decide that putting explosives in their underwear is the ideal way to inspire terror?

At the risk of overloading, there's another great Making Light thread talking about that issue. The point that is made somewhere in there is that there will *always* be outliers that we will never be able to predict.

Mandy: The lengths that we'd HAVE to go, according to LB, would only be "good" for the whole, not the individual and then you get on the slippery slope of means to the end for the greater good, which sometimes bulldozes the individual. And Homeland Security in the book demands that predictability be the norm. Which is crazy to suggest. And desperate to maintain.

kiirstin: Yes, exactly! Actually, something that stuck with me about that even though I didn't write it down was an offhand comment made about a kid who was HIV positive and his parents didn't know. And because of DHS' movement-watching scheme, they flagged his (her?) movements and blew his cover. Which would quite possibly have ruined his life.

Actually, this is something we've started having to deal with in libraries. In the States, there have been a couple of cases where the DHS has wanted libraries to release patron records to see what someone who is suspicious has been checking out of the library.

Mandy: I've heard of the library records cases. Crazy.

I also love the theme of Don't Trust Anyone Over 25 (I want to source this in the book to make sure). Because in the book anyone over 25 doesn't trust them. It's a theme that's interesting; the latter generation doesn't trust the newer generation because they are the next world-makers. What if they aren't right for the job?

"What if we haven't taught them the right way of being in the world and now it will come back to haunt us?" = blanket mistrust.

kiirstin: That whole blanket mistrust is SO PREVALENT though. Even some parents don't trust the kids they've raised to make good decisions. And true, teenagers sometimes make stupid decisions. But adults also often make stupid decisions, and they're the ones with the power.

I really liked that push-back.


And that's that! Thanks so much, Mandy! It was awesome chatting with you about Little Brother. Head on over to edge of seventeen and read Mandy's review for a different angle.


Mandy said...

(yeah! Success! Of course)

Unknown said...


Jeanne said...

I like everything you say about this book which is, I agree, an important book. I had more fun reading it than you two seemed to, but as you touched on, that may be from years of reading SF. I did ask my computer tech friends to read it immediately, and they were impressed with the technical aspects--as you say, everything works.

Unknown said...

Jeanne, it's definitely out of my comfort zone. I read a little bit of SF, but not a lot (more fantasy for sure) and I avoid anything vaguely dystopian. That said, I *did* enjoy it, and I'm really glad I read it!