Little Brother

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town was one of my favorite books of the last couple of years, so I was already looking forward to reading Cory Doctorow’s new Young Adult novel Little Brother when I saw it made the Hugo ballot, but not having paid attention to the advance press I wasn’t aware that it’s set in San Francisco until I actually started reading it.

The story follows Marcus Yallow, a smartassed likeable seventeen-year-old local highschooler with a penchant for hacking, gaming and other computer related activities, who chooses to skip out of school with some friends on what turns out to be the worst day possible and gets swept up in the Department of Homeland Security crackdown immediately following a 9/11-level terrorist attack on the Bay Area.

With a couple of very minor quibbles (“the” BART?), the Bay Area setting is portrayed very credibly and is well used. The story would have been different had it played out in a different geographical location. Doctorow lived here a few years back and has visited recently, and it shows, with the character of different neighborhoods and the feel of the people and places coming through quite well. The Mission is most lovingly portrayed, with several local landmarks making appearances and little nuggets of local information and history coming into play throughout the story. The online releases of the book were all dedicated to different independent bookstores, including our very own Borderlands Books over on Valencia Street.

The story itself is a breathless ride; intelligent, fast-paced and very entertaining clearly written during some of the more depressing portions of the Bush tenure but with a still-vital message about the power and responsibility of the individual when the state oversteps its boundaries. It also makes a compelling argument that the issues in the book are dramatized by the attack, but that they pose a real and present problem even before it happens, which is essentially our contemporary reality. The idea of a book like this aimed at radicalizing a YA audience perked me up immensely and I found it amusing that it seemed to be more in the general spirit of Heinlein juveniles than other recent tributes to the old man: Partly a wakeup call to complacent youth (and adults), partly a love letter to the art of programming, and partly addressing the methods by which strong-arm policies by the state create enemies out of its own citizens.

The characters are all nicely rounded and realistic; the kids in particular appear to be quite intelligent but occasionally naive and with motives that range from idealistic to simple human responses such as anger, fear or exhaustion. The idealism of youth is portrayed, but so are the unintended consequences and emotional toll of Marcus’s journey. Excepting the main villains of the story, which are pretty much shown as evil, there are dissenting opinions from the secondary characters which are generally showed as understandable if incorrect from the protagonist’s perspective. Meanwhile, the actions taken by the enforcers of order might have made me skeptical only a few years ago, but seem chillingly familiar and maybe even tame after having watched footage of the police crackdown on May Day immigration reform gatherings in Los Angeles in 2007.

Doctorow is of course a well-known geek, technology activist and creative commons advocate, and the book is pretty much a manifesto for all these things — but a terribly entertaining and compelling one, and as I agree with most everything in it, you won’t find me complaining much. Putting some of these ideals into practice, the book was originally released online under a Creative Commons License and you can check out the various trailers, art and other remixes which readers have created over on Doctorow’s website, Craphound.

The technology and software used in the book is mostly currently in use, although it’s clearly supposed to be set twenty minutes into the future, with the “Xbox Unlimited” having been released shortly before the book is set and some other not-quite-real-yet technologies being mentioned. Doctorow takes the time to educate the reader on some of the history of hacking and cryptography, and at the end of the book he turns things over to Bruce Schneier to encourage those who were interested in the subject matter to explore it further.

~España Sheriff

SF/SF Issue #85, May 2009