October 9, 2008

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Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow (2008, Tor Teen, 380 pages)
By Glenn Given production@hippopress.com

Caped and be-goggled future blogonaut Cory Doctorow prices his uneven but nevertheless must-read near-future YA Hacker-festo for your pleasure.

In case your recent trip to the airport didn’t tip you off: we live in an increasingly surveilled society. Security cameras gargoyle the corners of every major city, TLA*-titled spooks black box Akhmed Six-pack with frighteningly little resistance from the mob and minimum wage skirting terminal fauxlice keep the skies safe from NO MORE THAN 3 OUNCES OF LIQUID PER PASSENGER. Little Brother reminds us in a rambling L33t-speak ADHD yarn that this security theater doesn’t simply fail to keep anyone safe, it actually hurts us.

When future ‘Frisco suffers a terrorist strike, teen-tagonist Marcus Yallow and co. are scooped up by a roving band of DHS agents, reditioned [sic?] and water-boarded into angsty anti-establishment resentment faster than you can text message “ZOMG t3h trrsts haz 1.” Yallow, justifiably miffed over being tortured into giving up e-mail account passwords, turns his school-skipping and grade-changing hax-fu skillz A-Team-cum-Mythbusters-style against Homeland Security and generally pisses the man off by showing how trivial their multi-billion- dollar enforcement is when free cryptography and tech-jamming gadgetry are mouse clicks away from the people they are fruitlessly inconveniencing.

Let me just say bravo, Doctorow, your point is spot on. And three cheers for aiming the “Hey, guys, this is a dumb idea” message at the people who will have the fewest qualms about changing it (i.e. teh kidzorz). Little Brother is happy to exaggerate the nonsense of BS security in step with its just softer than screaming version of a teenhood which, even justified by the “near future” setting, spreads its 2600 Magazine familiarity with tech a bit broader than believable. It’s perfectly acceptable that teens would hax their XBOX’s with crypto-LINUX and piggyback on sleeper citizen WiFi to game and scheme unobserved. Hell, you should see what my warranty- voided XBOX can do. But there is an almost acceptable veracity to Little Brother’s conception of teen awesome. The figureheads of Brother’s San Francisco, notably in a flash-mobbed concert turned riot, hit the uncanny valley of cool. Yes, Alternate Reality Gaming and varied happy mutant future play, while nerdy now, will be de rigueur one day but here they strike an odd chord. Charlie Stross’ Halting State, buoyed by supercomputer praxis, suavely meshed the geek of MMO gaming into his tale and, despite its technological disconnect from today, never gave the disjointed feeling of acceptance that Little Brother’s world of high school cyber-cool assumes.

But these are choices of plot, free to be made by Doctorow, and, like whuffie or winged Torontonians, readers should swallow the goofy kool-aid, even when it doesn’t follow through, ’cause the earnest conviction and passion beneath is worth the sweet and sour coating. Where Little Brother truly missteps is in the adoption of Young Adult Lit trope over Literary Fiction rigor. I know YA fiction is supposed to stress accessibility and engagement, but there are odd conflicts here. At one point readers are told simply to “Google it,” yet later we are given lectures on dual key encryption by Marcus. Such expository forays vacillate between teacherly assertion and teen-speak in a nerdy cringing patois of scholarly tech author and teen punk that is interesting but off-putting in its awkwardness.

So which is it, Doctorow? Are you providing the Wikipedia summaries for us or trusting the readers to open their browsers? I can take one or the other, but mixing it up seems a smidge lazy.

Worse still, while the expected amount of teen emoting occurs, an awkward proportion of the subtext comes above board into blunt statements of feeling. Symbolism is largely absent as the fascist state and blasé citizenry are cast as unfaceted opponents and the lesson of “security < freedom” is rather ham-handedly shown in Yallow’s father’s various Civil Rights eurekas.

Little Brother is a tough nut to condemn, though. I mean, if books aren’t sowing the seeds of crypto-anarchy and anti-tyranny direct action, why bother reading them? At the same time, though, is it too much to expect a young adult novel to push the adult side a tad more? B — Glenn Given

*Three Letter Acronym