Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. Tor, 2008. 382 pages. Tr. $17.95, ISBN: 978-0-7653-1985-2
Plot: Marcus Yallow is a high school student with a talent for technology. He can do every hack, but he stays away from the malicious stuff because he’s got principles. While playing the game a computer and live game called Harajuku Fun Madness, he and his friends are in the wrong place at the wrong time when the BART train system and the Golden Gate Bridge are attacked by terrorists. The Department of Homeland Security swoops down and picks them up, taking them to an interrogation center.
Marcus and some of his friends (one has been stabbed and disappeared) are released, but Marcus is emotionally scarred by the interrogation and it’s clear that he will be watched. Sure enough, he finds a bug device in his beloved computer. Darryl, one of his best friends, is still missing, and Marcus, furious, creates an infrastructure of friends and technology specifically rigged to jam up the government’s investigation. While his father and most other people in the area are willing to give up their privacy for security, Marcus knows that the government operatives have gone way to far. He develops a relationship with other revolutionary computer geek, Angela, as his underground movement grows and becomes more and more dangerous.
Critical Evaluation: Doctorow has accomplished several impressive feats with this story. He has created a completely winning technological wizard, he has made the innards of a computer sounds absolutely thrilling, and he has created an philosophical novel that takes on some of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. The character of Marcus can be snarky, but readers will be on his side as he fights his enemies, the people who are working to clamp down on technology and freedom. The romance of the book feels a little tacked on, and Ange’s character never really goes beyond the fact that she is unconventional and willing to fight for the cause. The setting, San Francisco, is also a big part of the story, the closeness of Silicon Valley makes it the perfect high-tech hub. That, with the countercultural history of the place, makes it ripe for a book about tech revolutionaries. A vital book. It should be a must-have in any teen library.
Reader’s Annotation: When a group of innocent teenage computer geeks are suspected of domestic terrorism, they use their tech skills to fight for their privacy and freedom.
Author bio: Science fiction writer Cory Doctorow was born in Toronto, Canada to activist teachers. An activist himself, he has become extremely involved in copyright issues involving computers and the Internet, especially file sharing. He is a strong advocate of the Creative Commons, a file-sharing site that allows free access (with some caveats).
As a writer, he has made his books available on the Internet, but he does not believe that their circulation with hurt book sales. Though his stance is controversial, he argues that it’s a good way to get works circulating and whet appetites, thus provoking better book sales. He has written several books and short stories and he co-edits the popular weblog Boing Boing. His sequel to Little Brother is slated for release in 2013.
Genre: Science fiction.
Curriculum Ties: History – government, freedom and privacy issues.
Focus on Marcus’ Macgyver-like skills with computers. A lot of fun for high tech kids.
Focus on the issues of freedom vs. security, privacy vs. safety, especially in the post-9/11 age.
Talk about the idea of a teen revolution.
Reading Level: Sixth grade
Interest Age: 14+
Challenge Issues: Some may be upset by the characterization of the government agents in the book, and they might be upset by the sex scenes. Also, Marcus is anti-authoritarian to the core.
Challenge Response: Know the content of the book very well. Note that some have compared it to classics, such as the obvious comparison to 1984. The book brings up important current issues. It was a finalist for the Hugo Awards and it won the Prometheus Award. It has been very positively reviewed by experts in the field.
Why Included: It is a great book for kids who love technology and it also discusses some pretty serious issues of our time.