Cory Doctorow’s first three novels are all filled with the gosh-wow science fictional ideas I love: fans taking over the Haunted Mansion and the reputation economies in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the ad-hoc traffic-jam P2P networks and time-zone-linked groups in Eastern Standard Tribe, and in Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town the tech ideas are mixed in with truly out-there fantasy ideas in a way which shouldn’t work, but somehow does. Add to this his increasingly impressive short stories (I, Rowboat is my particular favourite), and you can see why I was eagerly anticipating the much-praised Little Brother.
Which makes it a shame that it almost completely fails to work for me.
Marcus is 17, and lives in San Francisco in the unspecified near-future, in a surveillance society filled with gait-recognition cameras and spyware-filled school-issue laptops. Marcus lives to subvert and play the system, and when he’s up against the clueless school administration it’s all fun and games and teenage rebellion. Then San Francisco suffers a terrorist attack, and Marcus and his hacker friends are imprisoned by Homeland Security and released to a city where preventing another terrorist attack is the priority, no matter how much their hi-tech security measures infringe upon privacy and civil liberties. Marcus decides to use all his considerable tech abilities, and the friends and allies he has and makes along the way, to fight back.
Clearly this is a world not too distant from our own, which is what makes the infodumpery and worldbuilding so hard for me to swallow. The first part of the book is loaded with explanations – LARPing, ARGs, TOR, botnets, all explained in handy paragraphs of exposition. I’m not convinced that knowing exactly how anonymous routing or botnets work is necessary for the story, and I’m sure you don’t need to know about SMTP headers to appreciate a cool idea, but I have a certain admiration for just dropping it into the text without even trying to disguise it. Unfortunately I already know what all the acronyms mean, and how a botnet works, and by the fourth or fifth time I had modern technology explained to me it was pretty tedious work.
It’s also a world not too distant from our own in terms of politics, and the way that terror attacks are used as an excuse for the gradual eroding of our freedoms – San Francisco under Homeland Security rule is only a few steps down the line from where we are now. I happen to know the politics of the author, because I read his blog, along with probably several million other people, and being a card-carrying liberal I agree with Marcus/Doctorow’s arguments as to why we shouldn’t be letting this happen. What I don’t get along with is how much of a straw man the other side comes across. I don’t if it’s simplification of the political ideas for a teenage audience, or that I’m jaded to their arguments from too much time online, but when Marcus’s dad sounds like a better-spelled version of a poster from Comment is Free, I find it hard to read Marcus’s rebuttals as any more than lip-service to the arguments. The Homeland Security workers, both low and high-level, are black hats without a shade of grey to them.
So if it’s too didactic and infodumping to appeal to me through the politics and ideas, what about the rest of the story? Here it fares a little better – Marcus is likeable enough if a little too competent at everything he does, and his dilemmas at whether his tactics are causing as much trouble and harm as those of his opponents ring true. I could have done without the revelation that Marcus’s long-time female friend turns out to have feelings for him, especially when I was pleased that they’d managed to do the “hey, my nerdy female friend has grown up and become h4wt!” scene without it turning into a relationship. Marcus’s actual romantic interest is smart and geeky and cool, and basically a female Marcus but I can live with that. There are some neat ideas which have small but important twists on our world – using Livejournal quizzes as an information-gathering tool, the revolution will take places on X-Boxes running Linux, using flashmobs to cause a distraction in the real world. The writing is straightforward and functional, which mostly works – it falls short of conveying the terror of Marcus’s capture by Homeland Security early in the book, but the later scenes (I’m thinking of when Marcus meets Darryl’s father) work better.
For a book which is all about the power of blogs, distributed networks, and what one person can do to undermine the establishment, the ending is disappointingly conventional, as Marcus tells his story to a newspaper reporter – one from a free weekly paper, and not the mainstream media who are as hostile and stupid as you would expect when it’s an internet revolution they don’t grasp. It’s the journalist’s coverage of Marcus’s revolution and torture that finally turns public opinion against the security measures.
I’m probably giving a more negative view of the book than it deserves, but while it may succeed for many as a call to arms and an instruction manual on how to fight the government, it fails for me as a novel. If you’re not familiar with the rhetoric and the ideas it contains, I see it would work better. That’s going to include a lot of people in the target young adult audience, and I find the idea of indoctrinating a generation of young people with a guide to online revolution quite cheering even if the book isn’t for me.