PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

A computer-savvy 15-year-old would probably find Little Brother entirely worthwhile, and she wouldn’t be wrong.

Little Brother

Publisher: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
ISBN: 9780765319852
Author: Cory Doctorow
Price: $17.95
Length: 384
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-04

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.