Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Little Brother - Cory Doctorow

Title: Little Brother
Author: Cory Doctorow
Publisher: Tor Teen, 2008 (Hardcover
Length: 382 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Science Fiction
Started: June 19, 2009
Finished: June 26, 2009

From the author's website:
Marcus, a.k.a “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works–and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.

But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they’re mercilessly interrogated for days.

When the DHS finally releases them, Marcus discovers that his city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: to take down the DHS himself.

I picked this up while working in a school library around the time the Forest of Reading nominees were announced earlier this year. From my experience, all the Forest of Reading books whether they win or not are incredible reads, I've read quite a few from all the categories from the past few years and I've yet to be disappointed with a single one. Plus, the beauty of the program is that all the books are written by Canadian authors, and I think we all agree we need to see more books written by Canadian authors put in the spotlight. Little Brother won the award for the teen category ("White Pine"), which means all the students who read the nominated books for that category chose Little Brother as their favourite. Can't go wrong with something the kids actually like reading, right? Plus, it helps that the book is just plain awesome on so many levels, it doesn't have those endorsements on the cover from Neil Gaiman and Scott Westerfeld for nothing.

It's important the remember that Little Brother takes place in a world where their average everyday technology is about 10 years ahead of our own, because that's the only thing to remind us that it's not really our own world that's being critiqued here. Little Brother is like a spiritual successor to 1984 by George Orwell (even the title is a play on words of "Big Brother is watching you"). It uses teen protagonists to explore the issue of personal rights in a digital age by plotting them against the government after their beloved technology is used against them. It's the old idea of giving up certain freedoms (like the government being able to access your email or text messages) with the promise of security. In the wake of a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the adults in the novel are willing to do just that without a second thought. Marcus and his friends however, who at this point have been tortured by the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) for their assumed involvement in the attack without any proof or fair trial, have a different idea. They use hacked xbox game consoles to create an online hub called Xnet, where it's members brainstorm ways to subvert the DHS by hacking their technology and creating mayhem in the hope that the rest of society will see that the security they've been promised isn't as wonderful as they thought.

Geeks and techies will get so much out of this book because of all the technology Marcus describes in his narration. When you understand exactly what he's talking about and what it can do, you actually get really excited. I was drooling over free xbox consoles, The Onion Router, and gait-sensing technology the schools used to track the kids. I thought it was all just plain cool. Heck, even 1337 ("leet") speak is featured. Even if you're not a geek or a techie you can still enjoy the book; Marcus explains the technology behind every gadget and process. He narrates just like we were taught to write essays in English class: "When you write, assume your readers know NOTHING about what you're talking about". Marcus explains things without being condescending or confusing.

I wish this book was around when I was 13 or 14, it would have meant so much more to me back then. Kids are used to having next to no freedoms and having them taken away at any given time, adults tend to take freedoms for granted and seem willing to give them up without really thinking about what they're giving away. I think that's why this book appeals so much to teenagers, especially boys.

Only one caution with this book: some of the material isn't appropriate for kids that aren't of high school age. There's some sexual content, and of course the scenes where the DHS interrogates the kids might not be something you'd want a 10 year old reading.

If you're looking for a must-read book for a teen, especially boys who are reluctant readers, then pick this up! If you're a tech loving adult, pick this up! Heck, everyone should pick this up just because it's an amazing book.

Thoughts on the cover:
I think the cover is the only bland thing about Little Brother. You have a white background, generic-looking kids with their faces shadowed standing in front of a giant red X (for Xnet), plus endorsements from other authors. The images are not amazing (though the shadowing on the kids' faces is a wonderful symbol), but I could have done without the recommendations from other authors. Not that I don't appreciate them, they're part of the reason why I picked the book up in the first place, but put them someplace other than the front cover (like on the end pages or inside cover).

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