[ Book Review ] When a good blurb leads to a dead canary

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

(a book written in eight weeks)

In the aftermath of a terrorist attack in San Francisco, the tech-savvy, teenage Marcus Yellow and his friends find themselves in the struggle between what is “politically necessary” and the unalienable rights of the individual. They take the fight against Homeland Security to the digital world.

Can a few school kids make a difference?

Do I recommend this book? It depends. Does the small speech excerpt below do it for you?

“My name is Marcus Yallow. I was tortured by my country, but I still love it here. I’m seventeen years old. I want to grow up in a free country. I want to live in a free country.” (290)

If yes, please feel free to ignore my review and read the book (you can download it free and legally here). If you’re not completely convinced, continue.

This is a review requested by a friend who said: “Read something by Cory Doctorow – I want to know if I should.”

The Review:

It is not a good sign when you hit page 27 and you already have enough material to make up an entire review. I decided to trudge on to page 50 just to see if things improved — an explosion of action at that point convinced me to slog my way to page 75. But my dedication just made my list of problems so long that I had to cease and desist. It’s for your, the reader’s, benefit that I stopped. Anything longer than this and you would have died by proxy.

Where to begin? Perhaps at my nonplussed reaction at the awards the book was listed (or nominated) for, or the blazing critical reception it received. On reading the rave reviews, I began to doubt my sanity. Was I even reading the same book?

Exhibit 1:

“But to his credit, Doctorow weaves a captivating story that raises serious political issues without hitting you over the head with the hammer of civil liberty.” From SF signal

From Little Brother:

“I use the Xnet because I believe in freedom and the Constitution of the United States of America. I use Xnet because the DHS has turned my city into a police-state where we’re all suspected terrorists. I use Xnet because I think you can’t defend freedom by tearing up the Bill of Rights.” (192)

Exhibit 2:

“Marcus is a wonderfully developed character: hyperaware of his surroundings, trying to redress past wrongs, and rebelling against authority.” – School Library Journal

From Little Brother:

“The Man was always coming down on me, just because I go through school firewalls like wet kleenex, spoof the gait-recognition software, and nuke the snitch chips they track us with. […] I raised my arms over my head like a prizefighter and made my exit from Social Studies and began the perp-walk to the office. […] Spending Fridays at school was teh suck anyway, and I was glad of the excuse to make my escape.” (22)

Exhibit 3:

“I’d recommend Little Brother over pretty much any book I’ve read this year, and I’d want to get it into the hands of as many smart 13 year olds, male and female, as I can.” – Neil Gaiman

It’s interesting to note that Neil Gaiman is referenced (and quoted) in the introduction of the Creative Commons version of the book. Also, each chapter of the Commons version starts with a shout-out to (and the address and phone number of) Doctorow’s favorite bookstores.

Little Brother says, question everything.

Exhibit 4: 

 “I was completely hooked in the first few minutes. Great work.” –Mitch Kapor, inventor of Lotus 1-2-3 and co-founder of the EFF, on Little Brother.

I just don’t…I don’t know where I went wrong in reading this book. Maybe if I’d have stuck to the end, I’d have had a stunning revelation that this is the most evocative dystopian struggle against encroaching totalitarianism since Orwell put pen to paper. Perhaps 1984 does meet Catcher in the Rye in Little Brother.  But I couldn’t finish, and because of this, I will refrain from addressing any of the socio-political or thematic issues I noticed in the first 75 pages. I’ll talk about the story instead, and the many things that made me sad inside.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The Introduction [Creative Commons Version]:


“The 17 year olds I know understand to a nicety just how dangerous a computer can be. The authoritarian nightmare of the 1960s has come home for them. The seductive little boxes on their desks and in their pockets watch their every move, corral them in, systematically depriving them of those new freedoms I had enjoyed and made such good use of in my young adulthood. ” (7)

By the time the introduction proclaimed “then you have a dog in the fight”, my brain felt like a sodden piece of brie cheese, melting under the radiation that is Doctorow’s paranoid purple prose activism. I was ready to proclaim him to be a closet dogfighter, just out of sheer desperation.

And this is a real shame, because once Doctorow steps down from the podium of high rhetoric, he offers several intriguing insights that I plan to follow up on (example: he claims that those who do the most pirating/illegal downloading also spend the most money on the industry they pirate from).

Still, high-handed alarmism wasn’t doing it for me.

The Story:

Most people don’t read introductions, so let’s get at the meat of things. I’ll cherry pick at the issues that sledge-hammered my progress to a grinding halt.

The character? He is a startlingly unlikeable kid with a kind of teenage superiority complex, masterly skills at all things computer, and the charisma of a rowboat that somehow gets him a job as the ring-leader of a small group of friends. I found myself singing “Cyber Awesome Skilled Teen REBAAAAL” to the theme of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles under my breath as I slogged on. I don’t know whether he develops into something beyond an occasional mouth-piece for authorial insights, but I wouldn’t holding my breath waiting.

The antagonists? The principal is petty and unintelligent. Marcus’ arch-rival at school is a bully and sycophant. The homeland security agent he encounters and battles over the course of the story is vicious and flat, taking pleasure in humiliating Marcus, and all without a hint of the humanization that makes true villains so terrifying.

The narrative? It is only when the narrative focus shifts from inside Marcus’ head and away from his snide observations of the world around him does the narrative become truly compelling. The description of panicked masses seeking shelter drew me in, and I could believe in the silent shock of the terrorist attack. This tricked me into reading an extra 25 pages before giving up.

The prose? Though the main events of the novel are emotionally charged, violent, human, or intense just by their very nature, I can’t help but feel that the writing style did not develop them to their potential. Constant shifts from present tense (in internal narrative) to past tense (in describing actions) just about kill the reader in me.

But what really makes it all unbearable are the smatterings of entire passages that read like a manual (or a subliminal plug for his publisher?):

“The answer is something ingenious called TOR — The Onion Router. An onion router is an Internet site that takes requests for web-pages and passes them onto other onion routers, and on to other onion routers, until one of them finally decides to fetch the page and pass it back through the layers of the onion until it reaches you. The traffic to the onion-routers is encrypted, which means that the school can’t see what you’re asking for, and the layers of the onion don’t know who they’re working for.” (30)

Fifty pages into the book, I knew a whole lot more about Onion Routers,  Botnets, microwaving arphids, moblogging, ARGing…than why I should care about the character, or read on to see if he gets run over by a truck on page 55 (we should be so lucky).

Tangent: Though, I do admit, the writer in me couldn’t help wonder how references like these would age with time…

“It was a locked-down spyware version of Internet Explorer, Microsoft’s crashware turd that no one under the age of 40 used voluntarily…I had a copy of Firefox on the USB drive built into my watch…SchoolBook ran Windows Vista4Schools, an antique operating system designed to give school administrators the illusion that they controlled the programs their students could run.” (29)

…and these do highlight one of the reasons for the pop-YA appeal. Who hasn’t complained about Vista?

All in all, I didn’t feel there is enough compelling padding (ie, story and character development) to allow for the speeches and moralizing that runs roughshod over the reader’s patience.

Reading suggestion: If you’re interested in chewing on the plot, and observing Marcus’ development from a regular teenager to a freedom activist, start reading at Chapter 3. That is where the story begins, and a few memorable, read-worthy passages occur.

Read it for the politics or as “a practical handbook of digital self-defense” (quoth a New York Times Review), but not for the story.

3 thoughts on “[ Book Review ] When a good blurb leads to a dead canary

  1. “A practical handbook of digital self-defense” – really??

    Thanks for the review, I love a negative review that is well supported and you did your homework 🙂

    • I wish it were kidding! But yes, I think it was intentionally written as an instructive morality tale for all young digi-sheeple who’ve forgotten the value of a good dose of Bill ‘o Rights.

      & Thank you!

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