Saturday, July 5, 2008

Neil Gaiman Loves It, and I Do Too: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

"My name is Marcus Yallow. I was tortured by my country..."

And really, what's not to love? Another wicked cool book that assumes teens are not allergic to ideas. Ideas about ethics and politics and the use of torture to combat terrorism. Ideas about freedom, social responsibility, political protest. Even ideas about community-friendly city planning, for crying out loud. Now I thought I'd seen it all, but this is the first teen fiction I've ever read that manages to talk about hackers, Jack Kerouac, and Toronto's very own Jane Jacobs, and make it all fit together.

Cory Doctorow, famous for, among other things, his blog Boing Boing and his adult science fiction work, is actually a Canadian. Surprised me, because this book is so very convincingly set in San Francisco, USA, in the very near future (read: tomorrow, maybe). Very convincingly. I had no problem at all believing that any of it could happen. In fact, bits of it already have.

Cory's book hangs on the question: what if a terrorist bombed a major landmark in a major city in the United States of America and killed a lot of Americans? (See what I mean? already happened....) And what if the American government, in the aftermath, became a wee bit paranoid/ national-security-obsessed (just stretch your imagination here)? And what if, say, the people enforcing national security were either too dumb, too lazy or too rigid to distinguish between a dissident and a terrorist? And believed that terrorists could be treated with a whole other set of rules? (you can see where Doctorow is going with this). Who would be left to stand up for good old American freedom?

Well. The teen hackers, obviously.

Little Brother opens with Marcus Yallow and his three best friends all skipping school to play Harajuku Fun Madness. While they are squabbling with another team about who gets to pick up a clue they have arrived at simultaneously, the bomb hits. In the mass hysteria that ensues, Marcus's friend Darryl is badly wounded and Marcus flags down a car for help. It turns out to be an unmarked military jeep, and booted and rifled soldiers hop out, grab all four kids, handcuff them, tie sacks around their heads and haul them into the jeep. From where they are hauled onto a boat. And then jail cells. And then interrogation chambers. Where they are kept for a few nightmarish days, and then released, under threat of death if they ever speak of their experience to anyone.

But rebel Marcus has no intention of letting things lie, especially since his friend Darryl is still "disappeared". He uses his immense computer knowledge, creativity, leadership and patriotism to challenge and expose the DHS in ways they never dreamed of. The resulting ride is scary, ingenious, creepy, thrilling. Lots of people get hurt, including Marcus. And boy, by the time we're done reading, do we ever distrust anyone who finds it expedient to breach civil liberties in times of national crisis.

If I have any criticism of this book, it is that each time Marcus thinks up another way to screw Big Brother, Doctorow has to explain the mechanics of it to us luddites. I ended up just kind of glancing over these sections, since they probably would have driven me crazy if I had really tried to understand them. They just served to reinforce my opinion that Marcus is a genius in nerd clothing.

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