One of the things that keeps me optimistic about modern literature is how well or creatively twenty-first century life is depicted. William Gibson was able to translate plots and characters from his cyberpunk Sprawl Trilogy to his present-day Bigend Books. And Cory Doctorow gives modern life a more cyberpunk feel in his Young Adult novel Little Brother.
Marcus Yallow is a high school student who spends half his time online and tinkering with electronics–like the kind that let school administrators track his whereabouts. But when he and his friends get caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing and mysteriously detained by the Department of Homeland Security, Marcus soon becomes a rebel for the sake of defending privacy and other civil liberties. What follows is an electronic war between the youth of San Francisco and the DHS, waged with protest groups, computer cryptology, and activist file sharing.
As far as Marcus goes, he’s a decent teenage character. However, because he has a strong penchant for disobeying authority–which is bad news when it comes to Homeland Security–he does at times seem a bit self-destructive to me. I don’t exactly hate him for it; I can feel the same tension in other Doctorow characters like Felix Tremont and Jules, whose big ideas eventually cause them to crash and burn. His friends all seem like typical high school geeks, though I did wonder a little about his love interest Ange. While she’s incredibly smart, strong, and sexy, at first I kept thinking she was too good to be true and possibly another trap for Marcus. But I’d never complain about having more strong female geeks in fiction.
It’s almost a little hard to believe this novel counts as a Young Adult story, being so heavy on issues like censorship, domestic surveillance, teenage sexuality, patriotism, and political activism. But at the same time, the characters are fairly straightforward and easy to identify with. The writing itself flows pretty well, except for one or two walls of expository text about P2P networks and security countermeasures. It does help that those chunks of text feel consistent with the protagonist’s voice, as he wants to be noted for how clever he is in bucking the System.
This feels like a story I should enjoy more, but I find myself too often thinking about how obvious the exposition, the drama, and Cory Doctorow’s political views are throughout the narrative. It’s not a bad story, just too strong and dystopian for my taste. But I think it’s great that a Young Adult novel shows geeks in a more positive light and gives serious social issues their due.
Little Brother is available for purchase from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It is also available for a free download from Cory Doctorow’s website and as a serial on DailyLit. The official sequel, Homeland, is due to be published later this year.
Bibliography: Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. New York: Tor Books, 2008.