Reader’s Request: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

March 26, 2010

Tor, 2008

Finished: late February 2010

Source: end of year reviews on Nymeth’s blog

Genre: YA near-future dystopic adventure

On the Scales: middleweight

I’ve sat down to review this and I’m having a hard time.  It’s about the kind of privileged teenagers I’ve never met, in a city I’ve never visited, with consuming interests that overlap very little with my own.  Why did I love it so much?

Here’s me trying to explain it to myself:  Even though this book is set in San Francisco, instead of using things you already know about San Francisco or being a teenager or politics to grab your sympathies, reel you in, and get you interested in the story, Doctorow builds everything from scratch like a fantasy world.

It helps that he’s not from the U.S.  As a Canadian currently living in Europe, Doctorow’s own culture runs parallel to the one he’s using for his near-future dystopia.  He’s got that insider knowledge / outsider objectivity I always enjoy so much in an author’s voice.

It works for the narrator, too.  Marcus is a popular, well-adjusted techno-geek with a past weakness for live action role playing games.  He has a keen sense of fairness–something his his loving parents have clearly had a hand in.  He is part of a close knit group of friends.  By the end of the book he is a hunted revolutionary facing prison and worse.

Doctorow is saying, put someone normal like Marcus in the furnace of injustice and he may very well come out red hot.  He’s saying, understanding and caring what the system is doing right now is the first line of defense when people start making it a tool for evil.  I don’t think evil is too strong a word.  Doctorow unfolds all the little ways apathy and paternalism erode freedom.  Most of all: blind trust.  In Marcus’ world, the ones who don’t trouble themselves to understand the ways technology is being used by those in authority, and who rely on the established media for information, are the adults.  They tend to assume everything that’s being done is okay, because isn’t it being done to protect us?  The teenagers in Little Brother get their information from each other.  They are used to questioning authority and thinking about the world not in terms of what’s safe, but what’s right.  They are the ones who see Big Brother taking over.

Yes, this is a politically charged book.  It’s about the teenagers of San Francisco against a DHS gone wild in the aftermath of another terrorist disaster.  But there are silly, fun parts too.  In the midst of a surveillance nightmare there are rock concerts, LARP, Mexican food, and interviews with clockwork pirates.  Little Brother is also a fascinating introduction to privacy ethics and cryptology.

Or, in this case, statistics:

If you ever decide to do something as stupid as build an automatic terrorism detector, here’s a math lesson you need to learn first.  It’s called “the paradox of the false positive,” and it’s a doozy.

Say you have a new disease, called Super-Aids.  Only one in a million people gets Super-Aids.  You develop a test for Super-AIDs that’s 99 percent accurate.  I mean, 99 percent of the time, it gives the correct result–true if the subject is infected, and false if the subject is healthy.  You give the test to a million people.

One in a million people will have Super-AIDS.  One in a hundred people that you test will generate a “false positive”—the test will say he has Super-AIDS even though he doesn’t.  That’s what “99 percent accurate” means: one percent wrong.

What’s one percent of one million?

1,000,000 / 100 =10,000.

One in a million people has Super-AIDS.  If you test a million random people, you’ll probably only find one case of real Super-AIDS.  But your test won’t identify one person as having Super-AIDS.  It will identify ten thousand people as having it.

Your 99 percent accurate test will perform with 99.99 percent inaccuracy.

I knew about the paradox of the false positive–vaguely–but I never heard it explained so well, or it’s implications framed as incisively as Doctorow does in his novel.  Actually, he’s doing a ton of different things at once in Little Brother, and it’s seamless.  That rarely, rarely happens!  The mini-lectures are never misplaced as interruptions.  The humor is perfectly timed.  The romance doesn’t feel sappy or tacked-on.  The violence could easily become a caricature of itself, destroying our empathy for the sufferers, but it doesn’t.  His ideology isn’t heavy handed.

If Little Brother were a preachy book, Marcus’ parents would be the enemy and Marcus would be a bronze statue of a revolutionary hero.  I love how Marcus makes convincingly teenager-y miscalculations.  And when his movement gains its own momentum, we get to see how he responds to that.  Doctorow doesn’t gloss over the stupidities inherent in blind rebellion any more than the ones in blind trust.

“This is California Live and we’re talking to an anonymous caller at a pay phone in San Francisco.  He has is own information about the slowdowns we’ve been facing around town this week.  Caller, you’re on the air.”

“Yeah, yo, this is just the beginning, you know?  I mean, like, we’re just getting started.  Let them hire a billion pigs and put a checkpoint on every corner.  We’ll jam them all!  And like, all this crap about terrorists?  We’re not terrorists!  Give me a break, I mean really!  We’re jamming up the system because we hate the Homeland Security, and because we love our city.  Terrorists?  I can’t even spell jihad.  Peace out.”

He sounded like an idiot.  Not just the incoherent words, but also his gloating tone.  He sounded like a kid who was indecently proud of himself.

The Xnet flamed out over this.  Lots of people thought he was an idiot for calling in, while others thought he was a hero.  I worried that there was probably a camera aimed at the pay phone he’d used.  Or an arphid reader that might have sniffed his Fast Pass.  I hoped he’d had the smarts to wipe his fingerprints off the quarter, keep his hood up and leave all his arphids at home.  But I doubted it.  I wondered if he’d get a knock on the door sometime soon.

I even liked the ending: bringing in the adults and discovering they’re good for something after all.  Thank heaven they are, since when the last door gets knocked on, as Marcus would say, “it’s a doozy.”

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10 Responses to “Reader’s Request: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow”

  1. Jodie said

    Yay I’m glad you picked this one to review. Isn’t it fantastic? Like you said the tech explanations and the politics could have sounded like interruptions, or lectures but they just never do somehow and they’re reasonably easy to understand without being too simplistic.

    Great point about how Marcus isn’t the shining light of what revolution can achieve either, things go wrong and sometimes he doesn’t see how wrong they are until it’s pointed out to him. Even though his parents come through in the end I’m still not sure I totally forgive them for their previous attitudes, though the author makes a compelling case for why Marcus’s dad buys into the system because of his fears.

    • Trapunto said

      I thought that too about Marcus’ dad. It was funny the way he’d argue himself into corners and end up having to contradict himself: a reversal of the parent / kid stereotype.

  2. Nymeth said

    As usual, I love your review! And yes, I agree with pretty much everything. I have no idea how he managed to make everything work together so well. The fact that the lectures never feel like information dumping and actually made me want to learn more about topics I never thought I was interested in was particularly impressive.

    • Trapunto said

      Yeah, I thought it was really neat when I found out Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbelestier inspired him to write a YA novel! It makes sense, because Scott Westerfield does the same thing with the lectures in Peeps, another favorite of mine.

  3. Fab review, thanks! I’m going to have to pick this book up! It’s been largely ignored in our library – time to fix that I think.

    • trapunto said

      I think the cover may have something to do with it. The UK cover is all edgy Che Guevara, and the US cover is all Hip-Hop superhero, neither of which captures the spirit of the book.

  4. Jenny said

    Please don’t judge me, but I’ve just realized I have had Cory Doctorow mixed up with EL Doctorow in my mind, and have been shunning him for that reason (because I always think EL Doctorow sounds depressing). Oops.

  5. Jeanne said

    I love the way you analyze the adults vs the kids in terms of questioning authority–that’s what I liked most about this novel. And, as you say, the adults do help in the end. Sometimes teenagers really do see things in a new way, and adults should listen…

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