You want scary for Halloween? I’ll give you scary. Not blood and guts scary, not monsters or zombies or axe murderers scary, but a book that will get under your skin and make you wonder about things you used to take for granted.
Imagine a world where your mundane life is turned upside down by a sudden and totally unexpected terrorist attack on the city where you live. Imagine that you happen to be caught near ground zero, and in that single moment, life as you know it will never be the same. Imagine that from that day on, you will become a suspect, a fugitive, and a revolutionary – against your own government – in order to try to preserve the freedom and liberty on which you were raised and in which you believe.
This is the story of Little Brother. But it doesn’t take place in some undeveloped, strife ridden, factioned third world country – it unfolds in modern day San Francisco. The “bad guys” are not the terrorists, but the Department of Homeland Security. And the hero isn’t some hard-nosed investigative reporter, grizzled anarchist or steely-jawed off duty cop. He’s a high school kid. A kind of nerdy gamer guy who is techno savvy and a little bit smart-alecky – but just a little bit. He’s a modern white bread middle class kid who does well in school, has a best friend but no girlfriend, gets along ok with his parents (both professionals) and shouldn’t really have a care in the world, other than not getting caught sneaking off campus during the school day.
Marcus Yallow and a few of his friends have ditched school for a couple of hours in order to follow the just released clues for a wildly popular ARG (Alternate Reality Game) when a terrorist bomb takes out the Golden Gate Bridge. In the ensuing panic and chaos, Marcus and his friends are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and find themselves caught up in a wide net set up to capture the terrorists responsible for the massive destruction and loss of life. However, rather than being protected by the government, Marcus finds himself a suspect due to some minor infractions on his school record. He is abruptly separated from his friends, and endures a week of imprisonment and intense interrogation by the DHS without being allowed to contact his family, and is subjected to what amounts to psychological torture. It is only after he has capitulated to their bewildering demands that he is released, with the caveat to not reveal what happened to anyone.
But his best friend is still missing, his experience continues to haunt him, his father is turning ultra-conservative, and every time Marcus turns around he sees another way that the DHS is tracking everyone’s movements, covertly spying on citizens, spewing paranoia and squelching free speech – all in the name of security and safety. It isn’t long before Marcus feels like he has to take some kind of action. Behind the online persona of M1k3y, Marcus uses what he knows – technology – to reach out to others in a rebellion against the growing police state, showing them how to encrypt communications, how to run on a secure network, how to circumvent iron-fisted security and how to confuse the watchers. Slowly his reputation grows – and so does the danger he’s in.
Little Brother is both a cautionary tale about the dangers of power without accountability, and a call to arms for safeguarding personal freedom by using grassroots organization and technology to stay one step ahead of totalitarianism borne out of fear. At that level, it’s very successful. The action feels realistic, the paranoia justified, and reactions seem reasonable. Author Doctorow does a great job of getting inside the head of a typical American teen-ager. Marcus feels genuine, and the wholesomeness that drives him is refreshing after so many moody, cynical, smack-talking young protagonists that seem to be the rage these days (and no sparkling vampires or super-brainy nerds, either). Every time Little Brother starts to veer towards the fantastical, Doctorow brings the action back to earth, keeping Marcus grounded and just a little clumsy (those of us who have been through our teens will wistfully recognize how deftly Doctorow takes Marcus through some particularly poignant teen moments).
The only time that Little Brother stumbles, it’s because the terrain is so rocky rather than due to any missteps on the author’s part. Most kids today are more knowledgeable and comfortable with technology than their elders, and Marcus is more knowledgeable than your average kid. He can even be called a hacker, but his dissemblings are more akin to taking something apart to see what makes it work rather than sating some sadistic need to spoil everyone else’s party. In order to keep his readers in the know as to what Marcus is thinking and why he takes the actions he does, Doctorow realizes that we have to be able to understand what “M1k3y” already knows.
So Doctorow must teach us quite a bit throughout Little Brother. And like the best of teachers, he doesn’t simply want to give us the facts, but also the history of things, and the why and the wherefore of their importance as well as the implications of using a particular process, technique or instrument. We have to know about different kinds of gaming, how to hack an Xbox (generally speaking), how to build a laptop (generally speaking), how to make a spy-cam detector out of a toilet paper roll, the concept of “razor blade businesses”, how to start your own underground network, the evils of arphids (RFIDs), the concept behind and practical uses of cryptography…. And that’s only by Chapter 6. Even with as well as Doctorow feeds us this information, sometimes we get bloated. Luckily, Doctorow doesn’t lecture – he shares. He has the knack of presenting this information in fairly easily digestible bits, written casually with little or no techno-speak, and at a level where we can pick up on the gist of things if we want and let the specifics float on by.
And the best thing is, it all fits together. He doesn’t give us much that we don’t need, and he uses what he gives us right away. There’s no plot teasing here – all the tension comes from not knowing how the other side will react, or having something unexpected occur. And unexpected things do occur – not to resolve sticky situations or to ratchet up the ante, but, well, because in life, unexpected things occur. We can never be sure exactly how our actions will be received, or what kind of ripples our pebbles in the pond will induce. So it is with Marcus, and that’s where the true tension – and terror – of the book lies.
So while Little Brother may not be the easiest book to read, and while it might definitely make one uneasy, it is incredibly rewarding. Those who are familiar with Cory Doctorow through his more “adult” offerings (such as Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town or Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) will not be surprised at how grounded he can be while his characters are constantly thrown off kilter. But unlike some of his other books, Little Brother feels more plausible, more relatable, set more in the here and now rather than the here and “what???”. Very possibly this is due to its being geared towards young readers, who are not yet jaded by mundane experience as more mature readers may be. However, the clarion alarm sounded in Little Brother should be heeded by all, regardless of age. The world in Little Brother may be fictional, but is eerily easy to recognize, and what happens to Marcus seems frighteningly possible. Yet at the heart of Little Brother, there is hope. Read it, take heed, and enjoy.