May 21, 2008 | Comments ()

By Phillip Stephens | Books | May 21, 2008 |


Let’s get the gushing out of the way first — Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is a slice of delicious badassery, culling together a variety of genres and emerging as a hybrid of cyberpunk, techno-thriller, and young adult novel. These are three pretty engaging literary modes on their own, if occasionally lacking depth, but at their confluence Doctorow finds a tone that’s downright giddy, resulting in a gripping, fascinating, and absurdly enjoyable little read that never condescends to unschooled technophobes nor panders to connoisseurs. And not only this, but the book has a damn relevant treatise on the contemporary War on Terror and civil liberties.

Marcus Yallow is a ridiculously tech-savvy 17-year-old in San Francisco madly in love with the Information Age of digital media, programming, and communications. He lives the majority of his life a corpora, using a variety of internet aliases to hack whatever information or material he wants; the kid can basically do anything he pleases. Doctorow presents us with a vague, unspecified near-future, in which technology and media have naturally made leaps and bounds, but everything is based on extant material almost all of us are familiar with. Marcus jockeys his interest in friends, tech, and gaming with the casual effervescence of youth, hinting in the early pages that Little Brother will be a breezy little novel of adolescent adventure - enjoyable, but cursory.

And then, just two chapters in, the cozy little universe we’ve just gotten attached to is leveled. San Francisco is rocked by a terrorist attack even greater than 9/11 — the Bay Bridge is destroyed, and Marcus and several of his friends are mistakenly gobbled up by the Department of Homeland Security in the midst of the calamity. Whisked away, bound, gagged, isolated, and mercilessly interrogated in a faux Guantanamo, the kids are all but tortured into divulging away their technological privacy, and then falsely denounced as suspects. Humiliated and horrified by the brutal disregard of his rights, Marcus becomes a devout enemy of the state. After being released, he wages as underground hacker’s war on the DHS and the increasingly Orwellian measures introduced under the guise of protecting America from terrorism.

Obviously Doctorow, a bleeding heart civil liberties advocate, is giving a black eye to the Bush Administration and the trans-legal finagling of the PATRIOT Act, but his homily never becomes patronizing. Marcus becomes a fiery advocate for civil rights; but in fighting the system so viciously, often not minding the hordes of innocent people caught up in his crusade of sabotage, he reveals himself to be something of a terrorist also, whether or not he’s on the side of “good.”

Doctorow peppers his narrative with frequent information dumps, explaining in rigid detail the mechanics of programming, encryption, and mathematical formulas (this isn’t as horrifying as it sounds) involved in the plot. These sessions often grind the story to a halt, but they’re necessary for Doctorow to maintain a relationship with reality. Much of “hacker fiction,” from the early days of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling to The Matrix and that retarded Angelina Jolie movie, has been about style rather than substance, of the fantasy of techno-media instead of the reality. Doctorow finds both in spades with Little Brother; his connoisseur’s passion for technology is contagious, and all the more compelling for its proximity to the real world. Better yet, and in a show of ideological fealty to his subject, Doctorow has made this awesome, lovable book available for free online.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).

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Cyperpunk Baddassery

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow / Phillip Stephens

Books | May 21, 2008 | Comments ()



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