Monday, January 5, 2009

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Main Character: 17-year-old Marcus, aka w1n5t0n, aka M1k3y
Location: San Francisco
Time period: 2011
Genre: Fiction, Dystopian Society, Fight the Power

I was hearing a lot about this book when it first came out--I think I first read about it on Scott Westerfeld's blog back in April--so I've been looking forward to getting hold of it.

Marcus is a smart kid--too smart for his school. The more they try to limit him--like using preprogrammed SchoolBook laptops which track every keystroke users make--the more he finds workarounds. This drives the assistant principal crazy, especially since he knows Marcus is doing something but just can't prove it. (Shades of Ferris Bueller!) One day, Marcus ditches school to meet with his friends Darryl, Van and Jolu; they are playing a game which gives clues online that lead you to a real-world place. They just get to the spot the clues have led them to when there is a rumbling that isn't an earthquake. They don't know it yet, but terrorists have just blown up the Bay Bridge. People panic and run for shelter, but in the crush Darryl is stabbed. Marcus tries to flag down one of the many police or fire vehicles passing to get help, but instead they are stopped by some military-looking personnel who put bags over their heads, tie them up and bundle them into the back of a truck. Marcus and his friends were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that was enough to attract the attention of the Department of Homeland Security. They are detained in a Guantanamo-type facility where they are questioned and tortured for several days until they are released (except for Darryl) with the threat not to tell anyone what they have been through.

Now I am going to say something really odd: I found this book utterly delightful. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, I had a grin on my face through much of it. Marcus, as I said before, is smart and watching his mind work was a joy. He starts talking about the math behind computer encryption and, yes, some of it goes above my head, but how wonderful that the author trusts the reader to follow it. There is a playfulness in some of Marcus's actions that reminded me of Jean Merrill's The Pushcart War. He is an anarchist, but he doesn't use bombs to make his point. Big Brother may be watching you, but Little Brother is watching back and has YouTube on his side.

I like the fact that some adults supported Marcus; his mom, his social studies teacher, and the reporter are all willing to listen to him. I was a little disappointed in his dad's reaction at first, but he came around. I will say that for someone so (rightfully) paranoid, Marcus seemed a little too quick to place his trust in strangers. There was one character in particular that I was quite concerned about though, thankfully, my fears proved to be unfounded.

There was one little thing that my mind started gnawing on late at night: it is mentioned, almost in passing, that the casualty figures from the Bay Bridge bombing are over 4,000. Plot-wise, I know it had to be that high to make this the worst attack on our native soil, but I started wondering if that could be a realistic number. How long is the Bay Bridge? What is the capacity? It's during a school day, not rush hour, so it wouldn't be bumper to bumper, and what percentage of cars would have more than just the driver? (You know, just about anything can be thought of as a math problem--oh no, I've been Math Cursed!) In the clear light of day, I realized that there may not have been 4,000 killed on the bridge, but that the rest were the number of detainees held secretly by the DHS. After all, Marcus's father thought he was dead. Darryl's father thought he was dead. How many of the people reported missing and killed that day were actually being held by their own government? OK, that is a chilling thought.

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