[ 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.

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