Sunday, August 31, 2008

July Book a Month Challenge: Independence

Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. New York: Tor, 2008.

Doctorow has responded to the United States' gradual increase government surveillance of the civilian population and the federal government's use of "terrorists" to clamp down on speech with Little Brother: a short novel describing what happens after San Francisco's Bay Bridge is destroyed. By focusing on a small group of tech-savvy teens, Doctorow shows both how the government might co-opt existing billing and security systems to quickly create a police state, and what domestic resistance to that police state might look like when when mobile phones are portable computers and everybody has access to good encryption technology.

While I enjoyed Little Brother, It had several flaws. The most minor of these is the main character's screen name, or alias: when the novel begins, Marcus goes by the name "W1n5t0n", but soon changes it to the more commonplace "M1k3y". If he had only used the names in the opposite order, giving him the name "Winston" for the majority of the novel, and all of the time that he was running his resistance operations, it would have created a stronger tie to Orwell.

More seriously, Doctorow seems to be trying to do three different things at once with this novel and, as a result, is not as successful at telling the story as he might have been. The story of Marcus coming of age and maturing both emotionally and politically against the backdrop of the "terrorist crackdown", and his resistance to that crackdown are the two parts of the story that work very well. Unfortunately, Doctorow weighs the novel down with a lot of technical detail that slows the pace. I found the "how to hack" and "how it works" sections of the novel interrupted the flow of the narrative, and I suspect that the readers of this book will either already know this information, or not care about the details. It might have been more appropriate to cut down on the explanations in the body of the text and provide an afterword explaining that much of the tech is possible today and pointing to the 'net for details.


laura said...

Huh. I loved the "how to hack" sections, which reminded me of a lot of parts of The Cuckoo's Egg. I like reading narratives about how people do things. Having the hacking tied to the story made me more interested in the story, not less.

David J. Fiander said...


Thanks for mentioning that. I too enjoyed the "how to hack" parts of The Cuckoo's Egg, but in that book, it felt like that was part of the point of the narrative.