Sunday, September 7, 2008
Review of Little Brother
My two word review? Read it!
I loved this book. It comes with top geek credentials: Neil Gaiman and Wil Wheaton recommended it, and so I requested it through the library system after I read their reviews. It took forever to come in, since there were many holds on it--apparently lots of folks agree with Neil and Wil!
Once it came in, I started to read it one evening, and I was up until two in the morning. I was totally hooked. While it's true that the 1984 concept has been done before (and the author admits to reading that book many times in the afterword), Doctorow does a great job of updating the idea. Bonus points for setting the novel in San Francisco, where the author clearly lived at some time--he describes getting a Mission burrito in great detail--which made it feel all the more real to me. In the book, terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge and the BART system. One teenager, Marcus, and his friends are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and are picked up by the military for questioning, held prisoner in a Guantanamo-like prison on Treasure Island. They are released after a few days of interrogation and humiliation, and told they will be arrested again if they tell anyone. One of their friends is missing and the military claims to have no knowlege of him, so they believe him to be dead.
Once they get home, they discover SF has become a police state, with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) given carte blanche to monitor all internet traffic and to track people using the RFID chips in their FasTrak and FastPasses. Marcus starts to fight back by creating an alternate internet that can't be tracked. They also start switching RFID tags so that the DHS's attempts at tracking people's movements are disrupted. It's a true David and Goliath story, and you can't help but root for Marcus and his friends.
I thought it was a nice touch that the attack itself is not the real focus of the story, but rather the issues of privacies being stripped in the name of "security"--security that can't find the terrorists, but works to harass average citizens as they go about their lives.
Finally Marcus receives a letter that the friend he thought dead is actually still alive and imprisoned on Treasure Island, and this motivates him to finally tell his parents the truth, as well as his missing friend's dad. They take the story to an investigative reporter, who publishes it. Marcus is picked up again by DHS, of course, but there is ultimately a happy ending.
The scary thing about this book is that I could imagine all of it happening. Particularly in the last few years, with the Bush Administration's actions in tapping phones, searching email, demanding to know who checked out certain library books--all of it in the name of security, but as Marcus pointed out in the novel, nothing feels any more secure than it ever did.
The writing in this book is great--you absolutely believe that the narrator is a very smart 17-year-old boy. The technology went over my head frequently, with all of the discussions of RFID (arphid), SMTP, and DNS, but even though I didn't understand everything, it didn't hinder my enjoyment of the story at all. Additionally, even though the "bad guys" in the book were unconditionally bad and one-dimensional--one of Marcus's classmates plays the big dumb malicious tattler with relish--I didn't mind too much. When you're that age, things do seem pretty black and white. The novel probably would have benefitted from someone with an opposing point of view who wasn't ignorant, stupid, or evil, but ultimately this book was a total page-turner, slightly frightening, and completely entertaining.
Better still, the author is giving away this book online--he claims, "For me — for pretty much every writer — the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity" and he would rather give the book away for free to get his name out there. He claims it's been proven to help book sales. I just love that attitude. So check it out risk-free!