[16 September 2008]
Marcus Yallow, narrator and chief protagonist of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, is a senior at Cesar Chavez High, which makes him “one of the most surveilled people in the world”. Of course, Marcus is only his name in the real world.
In the school’s technological underground, he’s the notorious w1n5t0n (“Not pronounced ‘Double-you-one-enn-five-tee-zero-enn’”), and in case you missed the 1984 reference in the novel’s title, this name should do the trick. A convincing, and at times quite frightening, look at the dangers of technological authoritarianism, Little Brother is a loose adolescent cyberpunk update of Orwell’s best novel, and a decent work of fiction in its own right.
Reading a Young Adult novel by an author whose adult fiction you admire generally proves to be an interesting, if not always enjoyable, experience. More than one reader I know insists that Haroun and the Sea of Stories marks the highpoint of Salman Rushdie’s career, and though they’re horribly mistaken, Haroun is undeniably a majestic work of children’s literature.
On the other hand, you’d be hard pressed to find a greater admirer of Michael Chabon and a bigger baseball fan than me, but I couldn’t make it past page 50 of Summerland, and I wasn’t all that many years removed from its target age group when it was first published.
Little Brother is far more Summerland than Haroun. It reminds you why you love the author in the first place, but it really is for an entirely different audience. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Doctorow has written some very strong science fiction for adults, particularly the excellent Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (another Orwell title reference), and much of what’s best about those earlier novels is on display in Little Brother.
The world of Cesar Chavez High is meticulously designed and almost always convincing. The near-future technology Doctorow describes is entirely plausible, the dialogue, while not always a pleasure to read, is a good approximation of how high school kids actually speak, and the central social issues explored are certainly worth examining. Its well-constructed and thoroughly engaging plot aside, the core of Little Brother is an argument against the creeping surveillance state.
Doctorow’s greatest success lies is his ability to effectively dramatize these issues while only occasionally distracting from the story, and even those instances are forgivable. Less forgivable are passages where Doctorow’s interest in peripheral technological issues overwhelm his writing. Case in point:
I turned to my SchoolBook and hit the keyboard. The web browser we used was supplied with the machine. It was a locked-down spyware version of Internet Explorer, Microsoft’s crashware turd that no one under the age of 40 used voluntarily. I had a copy of Firefox on the USB drive built into my watch, but that wasn’t enough—the SchoolBook ran Windows Vista4Schools, an antique operating system designed to give school administrators the illusion that they controlled the programs their students could run.
It’s not that I disagree with Doctorow’s take on the relative merits of IE and Firefox, though the unavoidable absence of any reference to Google Chrome immediately dates the book. It’s just that Doctorow repeatedly brings the story to a halt so he can explain such references, perhaps out of fear that large chunks of the novel would otherwise be incomprehensible.
But surely Doctorow’s target audience knows what a $SYS$ file is, and surely anyone who doesn’t isn’t going to enjoy this novel any more thanks to repeated tidbits of programming trivia. A detailed understanding of computer technology directly related to privacy concerns would, of course, help readers fully appreciate this book. Comprehensive knowledge of the browser wars? Not so much.
If this seems like quibbling over minor details, I plead guilty while maintaining that these things really do distract from what is otherwise a clever, exciting, and even, dare I say, important book. I’m certainly not the ideal reader, and not just because it isn’t age appropriate (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is one of my favourite novels from last year, and it’s not even as good as The Half-Blood Prince). But a computer-savvy 15-year-old would probably find Little Brother entirely worthwhile, and she wouldn’t be wrong. Just don’t expect anyone over the age of 20 to read the whole thing voluntarily.