Saturday, April 26, 2008

My First Review

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
This is the first time I've actually tried to write a review, so forgive me if I seem out of my depths. However, I thought I would give it a shot, seeing as how I got an advanced copy of the book and all.
Little Brother is the latest novel by Cory Doctorow, author of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town; Eastern Standard Tribe etc., is a coeditor of the immensley popular weblog BoingBoing. This latest novel is the story of 17-year-old San Francisco High School Student Marcus Yallow, aka W1n5t0n. He and his friends are, among many other things, in the wrong place and the wrong time during "the worst terrorist attack this country has ever seen", and are caught up in the DHS's sweep during the immediate aftermath. The story is essentially that of how Marcus uses his computer savvy and passion for personal privacy and turns them into a crusade against the growing totalitarianism of the DHS in San Francisco, whose presence becomes increasingly felt in every aspect of daily life in the traumatized city. The events of the story, and the ways that they effect the characters are frighteningly plausible. People being harrased and even "disappeared" by the US government are, sadly, not the realm of Science Fiction, though thankfully they have not reached the proportions depicted in this book. They very well could, however, and this brings me to the real purpose of this book.
I think it is clear, and not at all a mark against the book, that Mr. Doctorow's main goal was to give young readers a kind of primer on ways to avoid, subvert, and counteract the growing surveillance culture and paranoia that are sweeping the US. It gives very clear guidance toward resources that can help readers not only get information about vital issues of privacy and individual liberties, but also take action to protect those very things. This is laudable and, sadly, ever more urgent. I hope that the readers of this book will take the lessons to heart, and follow the example of the main character in not allowing authority to become total authority.
But, but, but...
The lessons given are good ones, but in many points they move beyond mere signposts and almost become polemics. The information contained in the story almost masks it at times, and the narrative suffers because of that shift in focus. For example, I was utterly removed from the story by a comment about Microsoft requiring "blood money" from game developers, and the extended discussion of "razorblade companies" surrounding it (p. 94 of my copy), true as the statements are. The hyperbole seemed utterly out of place, and the explanation felt more like a lecture than the internal monologue of a 17-year-old boy. Or the sudden lesson on Baynesian Statistics (pp. 109-11); given in the first-person, it felt totally out-of-place. They were important, I realize, but hard to swallow in the context of the story, especially as first-person narrative. I find it hard to accept that anyone actually talks like this, much less a teenager in the midst of such a catastrophic upturn of the normal order. The loss of engagement in the story is a pretty serious one, which in many ways detracted from my experience of the book.
Another criticism I have, and one that is less serious but still somewhat irksome to me, is the frequent surfacing of what I found myself calling "The World According to Cory".
I was a reader of BoingBoing for several years, and I found that many times this book (expecially in the first 140 pages or so) shifted into what might very well have been a digest of posts on that blog. We had the nuking of RFIDs (and frozen grapes); ARGing; fascination with Harajuku and the Japanese Teen Subcultures found there; a deep dislike of Micro$oft; Linux Love; short, stuff I used to read about on BoingBoing (incidentally, the reason I stopped reading BoingBoing was the sudden, bewildering inclusion of M$ advertising within posts. WTF?)*. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, but a lot of the time I felt it really added nothing to the story (why do we need to know that W1n5t0n wears "ankle-high Blundstones from Australia"?), rather, it was a way for Doctorow to discuss the stuff he clearly feels is important and, perhaps more importantly, fun. I was honestly surprised that Creative Commons wasn't mentioned. Now, I happen to agree with Mr. Doctorow in most of his opinions on these matters, though I personally feel that Harajuku teen fashion is ridiculous. I just think that it made the book extremely difficult to immerse myself in. In fact, I had to force myself to read past these points, and did not actuallly care about Marcus/W1n5t0n until page 141. At this point, Marcus's mom tells him about how truly desperate his father was right after the terrorist attack, when both Marcus's parents thought he was dead. He finally begins to realize that other people are actually effected by the events going on around him, and he finally begins to seem like a real person to me, rather than a mouthpiece for the anti-securityasshole crowd (of which I am a member). 141 pages is far, far too long to wait to become engaged in the POV character in a novel, and I worry that if many other people have the same reaction I did, the truly important things that this book has to say will go unread. At the end of the book, I was truly glad I had read it, and I hope that others will take the time to do so.
I guess that in my final analysis of the book, I have to say that the first half or so felt to me too much like a series of lectures strung together by bits of story, and the last half was a well crafted, engaging and VERY IMPORTANT book.
But that's probably just me.

*See how jarring out-of-place commentary is?

[Edited for Jetlag Compensation.]

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