Review: Little Brother

In Uncategorized on 2009-04-27 by Kyle Maxwell

(This review of Little Brother appeared on yesterday.)

I grew up different than most everyone around me. Whether nature or nurture shaped me more, I can’t say, but my grandfather was an electrical engineer, my father is a network engineer, and I am a security engineer. If you had a kid in school who always dressed just a little bit oddly, read books about math and science for fun, could do things with computers and electronics that the other kids would have never even imagined, and constantly got in trouble for being bored in class but managed to get good grades anyway… well, me and that kid would have been great friends for having so much in common.

Among this geek subculture, we tend to hold certain beliefs in common. Geeks usually have a strong libertarian streak of one sort or another, possibly due to the fact that we just want society to let us be different and explore the world our own way. And, like some other subcultures, we critically examine (in the best sense of that phrase) what people tell us and how things work. We never left behind that childhood phase of asking “why?” over and over and over. We wear T-shirts with obscure technical jokes and argue about what the word “hacker” really means.

We can trace back our “subcultural roots” for centuries. Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman and Alan Turing and Nikolai Tesla and Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage and Benjamin Franklin… all the way (at least) to Leonardo da Vinci. And my generation keeps the flame alive in its own unique way, particularly with the genesis of Net culture. Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother, has established himself as one of the thought leaders of this subculture, or at least someone who conforms to our little brand of non-conformity and has enough of a soapbox to champion many of the causes dear to our hearts. Find an intersection between social justice and copyleft and mathematics, and he will be chronicling and championing it.

Little Brother represents Doctorow’s homage to 1984 and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, boiled down to a novel aimed squarely at teenagers. I can’t really call this “science fiction”; it’s more of a libertarian thriller that gets listed in the YA section at the bookstore. He runs through a (fictional) terrorist attack on San Francisco and the ensuing response by the Department of Homeland Security. Make no mistake, Little Brother says as much about politics as it does about technology. I suspect Doctorow would argue that the two have grown into each other at this point, and he’d do so convincingly. Conservatives reading this book may wince at some of the characterizations found in it, as the book openly espouses a particular sort of progressive politics centered around San Francisco.

The novel doesn’t quite reach the heights of the novels and writers mentioned above, and that’s a shame. Doctorow could have treated some of the antagonists in the novel with a bit more nuance, or at least presented the other side of the argument with a little more understanding, less polemically. In places, the exposition gets a little thick, partly due to his desire to explain the real-life technical details and partly so that he can make out the bad guys as really bad. He takes a few shots at minority religions, including this reviewer’s, and glosses over the racial implications and complexities of the Global War on Terror and DHS. These details detract from the novel, moving it from a tale of the struggle for freedom backed up by technology to a propaganda piece for a particular brand of techno-libertarian progressive white politics.

They don’t do so, however, to the degree that the novel loses all value. Doctorow has a lot to say about these things, and so not only should those of us who belong to the geek / hacker subculture read this book, and maybe buy a copy for a smart 15-year-old, but maybe for an intelligent but staid person who just doesn’t quite understand why kids these days can’t just listen and respectfully accept what authority figures tell them.


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