Monday, May 27, 2013

Little Brother

Rating: 4 stars
Length: Moderate with momentum (416 pages)
Publication: April 29, 2008 from Tor Teen
Premise: Marcus Yallow is content with bothering the school administration and hacking for fun until he and his friends are out in the middle of a terrorist attack on San Francisco. When he's in the wrong place at the wrong time, he is imprisoned and interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security. Even when he's released, the stain of it lingers with him, and he's driven to fight against the organization that claims to be trying to protect his city.
Warnings: moderate physical violence, psychological torture, one instance of waterboarding
Recommendation: This one is worth a try just because it's so very different from most things targeted at this age group: Doctorow enjoys teaching and explaining things but blends that into the narrative well, so it's hard to set this one down.

What makes this one so very approachable: 

Marcus Yallow is a cocky young hacker, entirely confident in his ability to work his way past his school's inadequate security captain. He's planing nothing more ambitious than leading his team in finding the next Harajuku Fun Madness clue by cutting class, but in the middle of their excursion, a series of bombs takes down the Bay Bridge. In the scramble to get into the underground shelters, his friend Darryl is stabbed. When they all rush back to the surface to find help, they find themselves arrested and driven off in a truck-- at first they assume that they've been kidnapped by armed terrorists, but it soon becomes clear that they're in fact trapped by the Department of Homeland Security. Marcus tries to ask for a lawyer and is denied, launching him into the few most terrifying days of his life. His interrogators have no patience for resistance and are prepared to leave him locked up or even ship him to an overseas prison if he doesn't cooperate-- his terror at the idea of being trapped is a real in a way that doesn't happen in many novels featuring an imprisonment and torture narrative. Characters tend to be stoic, able to tough out parts of it even if they're permanently damaged, but Marcus breaks and acknowledges that he is changed by the experience, less able to trust and feel secure. The details are well-chosen, from his lost circulation in plastic handcuffs to the lingering humiliation of having to piss himself because his hands are cuffed; his captors want him to spill everything he knows, and he does so rather than take a noble-but-stupid stand and principle.

Even when Marcus and his friends are released, nothing seems to be the same; he feels like people are watching him, in part because they are. People's movements are being tracked with RFID tags attached to subway passes and automatic toll-road fare cards, gait-tracking cameras are everywhere, and the police are pulling people for questioning if their movements are suspicious. Privacy is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and Marcus can't stand the idea that the people who imprisoned him are tearing his city apart in the misguided attempt to make everyone safer. He launches the Xnet, a secure and untraceable wireless-network community of hackers who want to feel free in their own city. They start small, scrambling RFID tags to screw up the system of tracking people, and work their way up to more organized forms of protest and sabotage. It's easy to picture this sort of movement taking off locally; teenagers on the internet have a terrifying and/or delightful amount of free time, and coming up with creative ways to interfere with local security theater seems like something that would just happen naturally. The story would have benefited from more varied look at this movement, with Marcus addressing the fact that his movement is being used as a venue for 9/11 conspiracy theorists and potentially violent anarchists to distribute their literature; no movement is perfect. That said, Marcus's obsessive devotion and worry is a good lens for this story, mentioning bits of the movement without needing to explain every idea and protest action.

Most of these hacks revolve around computing technology, since that's the DHS's main tracking weapon and Marcus's main expertise, but Cory Doctorow weaves the explanations of how everything works with a practiced hand. There's just enough detail to give an idea of how this stuff works if you're not familiar with it, but it very rarely bogs the story down and everything that's explained needs to be clear in order for the nearest sections to make any sense. The historical background, particularly of the 1960s protest movements, are no less deft-- in places it can verge a hair on the preachy side, but for the most part the idealism works a part of Marcus's worldview. He wants life to go back to the way it was, but he can't stop thinking about his imprisonment and wondering who's next. As he organizes his grassroots tech rebellion, he sways between wanting to encourage people to jam the DHS and wanting to tell people to stop because he feels responsible for what might happen if they're caught. It's a good character struggle, especially for a YA novel; not many teenagers are useful leaders of more than two or three friends, but Marcus is leading a movement while trying to protect himself and panicking about the danger his followers are risking.

Some of the secondary characters, both in Marcus's movement and not, really shine. His parents in particular are great because of the way they care for him while representing different sides of the national security debate. They thought that he was dead during his imprisonment, and he was told to not say anything about it unless he wanted to be imprisoned for life. His mother is originally British and sees American security as barbaric and invasive, if sometimes necessary, while his father believes that giving the government room to work will mean the terrorists get caught more quickly even if privacy is sacrificed in the meantime. They love him, but there are more than a few family disagreements about what's right in the cause of stopping terrorism. One of the Xnet slogans is "don't trust anyone over 25," but the narrative slowly opens up to show adults who are absolutely trustworthy and understand the nature of Marcus's movement better than he does at times, and it's great to see that diversity. Ange, Marcus's love interest, is compelling in her own right-- she has different ideas about what to do with Xnet and won't take an ounce of crap from him, though she thankfully avoids the trope of using a girlfriend as a stand-in conscience. Her personality isn't easy to explain, but she's focused and direct and sexual without being a sex object; on the whole, she reads as a real person and it's great.

The red pen: 

Some of the character really do work, but the ones that don't tend to fall into a tiresome loop of black-and-white morality. The central three at Marcus's school duplicate a dynamic that was decent when it showed up in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix but doesn't work for the more nuanced worldview that Cory Doctorow is trying to reproduce. Charles the odious classmate, Mr. Benson the administrator who delights in setting out punishment, and Mrs. Anderson the poisonously sweet social studies teacher combine to fight against Marcus's worldview and even safety, but they don't have any depth-- it's Draco Malfoy, Professor Snape, and Professor Umbridge all over again. It wouldn't have been hard to give any of them some emotional range, especially Charles. Thousands of people died in the attack on San Francisco, so it's very possible that these people could have lost, or nearly lost, family members or close friends. Charles spends all his time arguing that thing boil down to us versus them and that anyone associated with the Xnet is a traitor to the country, but he almost seems to be doing so out of malice rather than genuine conviction or fear, which edges him behind Draco in terms of personal dimension. A principled opponent is almost invariably more interesting than a one-note villain, but the novel doesn't feature any substantive opponents who aren't either irredeemable or ready to come over Marcus's way of thinking with a little debate and nudging.

Good characters Marcus's own age besides Ange are in short supply for whatever reason-- there are allusions to friends, but people outside of the core group seem to not exist, and the core group soon narrows to just Ange. This is particularly disappointing because the core group was ready-made to explore other angles on this struggle. One friend, Jolu (Jose-Luis) drops away from the protests because he's Hispanic and rightly observes that brown people, on the whole, tend to be punished more harshly than white people for the same offenses, and he's worried about years of imprisonment if he's caught. The observation is well-taken, but he might as well not exist after that conversation, which is disappointing. A similar thread goes for Vanessa, a child of Korean immigrants who had two family members vanish into government prisons and never come out. She understands far better than Marcus what the consequences of dissent can be, but after one explosive argument, she's almost entirely gone from the story until Marcus needs a favor-- she has some unnamed problem with Ange but has otherwise vanished. Although she got lighter treatment in prison than Marcus because she cooperated more, it's hard to believe that she went a minute in there without imagining dying the way her uncles did and leaving her parents with no idea what happened to her. Both of these friends have more to lose than Marcus and walk away from the movement, but they nearly cease to exist as people after that, which does all the more to pull the dilemma of what's right into lazy black-and-white poles, just with these good people fading into some grey area of good sense and cowardice while Marcus stands alone.

Most other complaints about Little Brother are matters of personal taste, so your mileage may vary, but the little things itch all the more. Marcus has undeniably been through a terrible experience, but two of his friends were imprisoned at the same time he was; he got the worst treatment for being stubborn, but they were also trapped, and other people were caught at the same time as well. After some initial conversations post-release, Marcus drifts apart from his friends in his quest to keep Xnet running and falls into the trap of over-angsty isolation along the way. His genuine struggles over what's right works so well, but then he's alone in his room and carrying the weight of the whole movement on his shoulders. Other hackers have already come up with stellar ideas and executed them before he ever handed out advice, but he tends to notice that they've done something, admire it, and then fail to follow up by establishing ties with other movement leaders or really talking to anyone but Ange about what to do next. It limits his scope as a leader, which is all the more frustrating when he shows signs of being a good one someday. There's also the minor-but-running problem of internet/hacker slang. That vocabulary could be good in some moments, but having it show up mid-ogle (or right before sex) is just obnoxious and it's beyond heavy-handed in the first few pages, as though seeking to establish credibility with a teenage audience and trying much too hard.

On the whole, Little Brother makes for an enjoyable read, tough it dips into somewhat darker territory than is typical of YA novels (though Hemlock LINK touches on internment camps and species-motivated violence, so it's a grim month all around). It can verge into angst or the temptation to paint this otherwise interesting world in shades of black and white, but for the most part it holds to remarkably consistent tone and pacing and does a lot of tech teaching on the fly. It's hard to pull all of that together without being depressing or dull, but Doctorow manages to weave it all together into a one-of-a-kind story of freedom and rebellion.

Prospects: The sequel, Homeland, came out on February 5th this year. Doctorow has also released several other novels, including the YA book For the Win.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Ernest Cline's Ready Player One is far more focused on eighties culture, but the dynamic of grim experiences transforming a fun hobby into a grim struggle against authority is remarkably similar. Cline explores virtual reality in a way that's not possible for the near-future of Little Brother, and it's fun to read a love letter to the eighties that escalates into a matter of literal life and death.

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