Little Brother

Last week I read Cory Doctorow's latest novel: Little Brother. This is his first "YA" (young adult) book but don't let that fool you, this book could be enjoyed by all ages. (There's a whole 'nother digression here about how YA fiction is actually really vibrant right now and in fact is probably doing better than "straight" SF is. But I'm not going to digress, other than to note that "YA" isn't some sort of scarlet letter for a book to carry.)

As always I don't want to give any spoilers but I'll briefly describe the book. It tells the tale of a seventeen year boy named Marcus who runs afoul of the Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist attack destroys the Bay Bridge. He's detained for a while as a suspected terrorist and when he is finally released his best friend is "vanished" away. Over time he gets more and more embroiled in fighting the Orwellian tactics of the DHS, who is using the attack as an excuse to trample all over civil rights in the name of "security".

This is Doctorow's most overtly political book to date, but unlike when I complained about the cartoonish jackbooted thugs in the last Merchant Princes book (by Charlie Stross) I can't really argue that the DHS doesn't act like the portrayals in the book. OK, I don't really think they are going to routinely "disappear" minors and I don't think they'd really set up a mini-Gitmo on US soil, but completely ridiculous data-mining operations designed to create a total surveillance society? That's not science fiction, that's not even fiction, that's something that has already happened (Google NSA, AT&T, and "Mark Klein" if you've missed the story so far). I'll admit the ease at which Marcus talks youth culture into running Linux is way over the top, but it's not enough to completely break suspension of disbelief.

The politics comes on strong though and several times in the book I got the queasy feeling in my stomach I get when I read about telecom immunity, or the liquid ban on airplanes. It's hard to describe properly, but I've seen enough stupid government crap designed to keep us scared and look like it's fighting terrorists when really it's promoting terror to recognize the specific "Can I wake up now feeling? I'm done with this nightmare, ok thanks bye!" feeling I get. It surprised me that the book evoked that so well in several places.

I liked Little Brother a lot. It might very well be my favorite Doctorow novel to date. (I'd have to reread Eastern Standard Tribe to be sure, but it's at least my second favorite, if not my favorite.) It's not really very science fiction-y, it's easily his least "out there" book, but it's a fast read and moves along at a good clip. I think it falls apart a little at the end - apparently Doctorow originally intended a sequel, but Tor wanted a stand-alone so there's a bit of a deus ex machina that pops up to make everything wrap up in time for credits but the first part is good enough to make for the faltering finish.

Moreover, I think it's an important book. It's one of the first really good fictional treatments of what the US government has turned into (apparently dragging the UK right along behind us from what I understand) and I'm glad for that. It's not too strident, which was a fear I had going in. It reawoke some of my sense of outrage, but you know what? That outrage is important and I don't want to lose it entirely, until we lose the TSA and the color coded alert system and the distressingly non-specific "security alerts" and the "no photographing public buildings" nonsense and so forth. We have a government agency that seems intent on creating panic as a tool for empire-building and we need to put a stop to that. Having a book that says so is a good way to keep that in mind. I'm glad that Doctorow wrote this book, and I'm glad to have read it.