Little Brother

Little Brother

Note: This is not an action/adventure novel in the traditional sense, and at first I hadn’t planned to review it.  But then I reconsidered.  Marcus, the main character in Little Brother, doesn’t engage in chases, fights, daring rescues or any of the other things we normally see in an action/adventure story. But he does fight the government in his own way, using his computer.  The action is based around what he does with his computer and the internet, so it’s definitely different.  But if you’re into computers and computer security it makes for an amazing story.

Author: Cory Doctorow

Publication: 2008, TOR

Pages: 382

Overall Rating:bth_45_zps06f87659[1]                        

Rating for Action: bth_4-star-rating_zps38e772a0[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_3-star-rating_zps73bdba73[1]

Age Category: 13+

Brief Summary:  Marcus Yallow is a bit of a geek.  He loves Live Action Role Playing and anything to do with computers, and he’s a natural born hacker with a flair for beating electronic security systems.  One day he and some of his friends skip out on school to play Harajuku Fun Madness – an Alternate Reality Game that combines online puzzles with going out into the real world to sniff out hidden WiFi signals – when San Francisco’s Bay Bridge is blown up.  Marcus and his friends head to a shelter but it’s crazy overcrowded.  When they try to get back out one of his friends gets stabbed.  Marcus tries to hail a police car to get help.  Instead, he and his friends get picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and spend five days getting interrogated in a secret prison.  When they finally let him go he discovers that his injured friend is still in prison. Marcus is pissed and decides to use his computer skills to go to war against the DHS.  He creates an encrypted network for sharing information with other folks, messes with DHS data mining efforts, and engages in every tactic he can think of screw with the DHS.  But every day that passes they get closer to identifying them, and once they do he knows it’s straight back to prison – this time for life.

Age of Main Character: 17

What I Liked the Most: Doctorow has done an amazing job creating a realistic portrayal of government (and average citizen) reactions to another major terrorist attack.  His DHS is ruthless in cracking down on civil liberties, gathering data on everything from where people travel to what they spend their money on, and they quickly start pulling over anyone with even vaguely suspicious patterns.  Most of the adults fall in line.  Even if they’re annoyed at the inconvenience, they believe the measures will keep them safe and are quick to add measures of their own – like video cameras in school hallways and cracking down on any speech that questions the tactics of the federal government.  It’s a scary and all too realistic portrayal of a government and people gone mad.

Doctorow has also come up with some incredibly cool and imaginative cyber tactics for Marcus and his friends use to fight the DHS.  And for the most part he’s made it so that technological neophyte like myself can still enjoy the story, even if we don’t always understand exactly what Marcus is doing.

Finally, Doctorow has done a beautiful job of making San Francisco into a living, breathing part of the story. You can feel it in every passage and chapter.  This hasn’t been set in some anonymous city, the location is concrete and utterly vibrant.  In many ways, Little Brother is as much a love letter to the city of San Francisco as it is to free speech advocates and protestors the world over.

What I Liked the Least: While I loved the creativity of Marcus’ tactics, there were times when the descriptions of what he was doing – and the technology behind it – get what too long and involved.  It might be fascinating for anyone who knows what Doctorow’s talking about – or anyone who has even the inkling of a clue – but for the those of us who are more techo-ignorant it was sometimes a little hard to pay attention when he went into a two page description on the science behind his latest computer attack.  The same is true for descriptions of how he got into LARPing.  Some of the background material just goes on too long and derails the forward motion of the story.

How Good was the Action?  As I said at the beginning of this review, you’ve got to change your definition of action for this book.  There are no real fights or chase scenes, no one climbing a mountain or canoeing across an ocean.  The action takes place in cyberspace.  It’s Marcus organizing an illegal vamp mob, cloning RFID chips to mess up DHS data mining efforts, and designing new encryption systems to keep the DHS from spying on them – and if you understood any of that, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.  From that perspective, the action is excellent.  You’re not likely to find many other books about techno geeks and cyber revolutionaries where the computer lingo and cyber tactics are more realistic.

How Engaging was the Story?   Doctorow does an amazing job pulling you inside Marcus’ head and taking you from his initial jaunt out of school through his time in lock-up, and all his efforts to fight the DHS – which finally brings him to the point where he’s ready to go back into DHS custody if that’s what it takes to help his friend.  This is an extremely engaging tale, full of emotional ups and downs as Marcus tries to carry out the impossible task he’s assigned himself – bringing down the Department of Homeland Security.

Overall Assessment: Little Brother is a lovingly crafted tale of cyber revolutionaries and a rousing call to all of us to stand up and defend our civil liberties in the face of terrorism.  It’s an engrossing story of one high school student and his fight to bring down the Federal Government using little more than his Xbox and a talent for cyber mischief.  Anyone with an interest in civil liberties, protest movements, free speech, the fight against terrorism, or electronic security should read this book.  It’s more than a fun story, it’s a reminder that sometimes we have to stand up and fight for the things we believe in.

Profanity: Yes

Sex: Yes. Marcus does a lot of kissing and some heavy petting with his girlfriend.  They eventually go all the way, though that’s not actually described in any detail.  There’s also some drinking.

Violence: Some.  There’s one very brief fight, but most of the violence involves Marus being beaten and waterboarded by the DHS.

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