(Anyone in my book club that is discussing this book on Thursday may want to skip this review, at least until after our meeting!)
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved this book. I hesitate to give it 5 stars, because it may not be quite that good of a book. I was just enjoying it too much to notice.
I suspect that there are many people who will hate the book for the exact same reasons I love it. In particular, any fan of the Patriot Act or anyone that is not interested in technology should probably avoid Little Brother unless they want to come in with an open mind.
In the beginning, we are introduced to the main character– Marcus to the outside world, w1n5t0n (Winston) to his inner circle of buddies. He’s talking his friends skipping out of his day in high school to play an “alternate reality” game with “physical, online, and mental” components. Along the way we hear about the surveillance every high school has as a matter of course (Laptops crippled with official spyware, “gait recognition” cameras to watch who comes and goes from the school). We listen to w1n5t0n explain how he can get around all of these and more. We also hear how he handles the principle, who thinks he’s been up to something, but can’t quite prove it.
As the group finds their way to the game’s most recent clue, Something Happens. They aren’t sure quite what, but they are taken prisoner by what seems to be the bad guys. Except it turns out the be the Department of Homeland Security. And aren’t they supposed to be the good guys?
Marcus and two of his friends are released, not knowing the fate of the last of their group. The Bay Bridge was attacked by terrorists, and nothing will get in the way of those that intend to keep us safe– particularly not little details like the Bill of Rights.
Marcus continues to use his leadership skills and technical wizardry to try to preserve the rights he believes in.
I particularly loved the secondary characters. My favorite, with a fairly brief role, was the social studies teacher who risked her career to facilitate an honest discussion about the role of civil disobedience in standing up to government in the past and (the books) present. But I also appreciated Marcus’s dad, who honestly believed going along with DHS was the right thing to do; and the friends that decided at various points that although they thought what Marcus was doing was right, they couldn’t afford to take the chance of going along with it.
There was nothing subtle about the portrayal of where the author things certain government policies would go, given the opportunity. 1984, The Patriot Act, and the unrest of the 1970s all inspired the point and counterpoint of this novel.
The unique thing this book had going for it was its use of technology. Doctorow understands and is able to explain computer security, cryptography, computer networking and more. He uses them all in a realistic and interesting way. I never thought I’d see a good explanation of a “man in the middle” attack in a work of mainstream fiction. The technology worked for me as a techie, and I think it would work for an interested non-techie. I suspect a non-interested non-techie would be able to gloss over it without losing much steam in reading.
I enjoyed that this book encouraged me to think, and I also liked the ride it took me on. I think the ending probably was a bit too pat, but I’m willing to overlook that, and strongly recommend it to anyone not scared away by this review.
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