Doctorow, Cory (2008), Little Brother, Harper Voyage
Here’s the thing. I’m not one of those weirdos who make a distinction between good books and fun books. When I had fun reading a book, I had fun and that’s a good reason to recommend any book. But with Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, and his first young adult novel, I must say, I don’t know. Cory Doctorow is no relation to the great American master E.L. Doctorow, as far as I know, but if he were, the apple, as they say, would have fallen far from that beautiful tree (or has it?). Among several flaws, I’m tempted to call the writing sophomoric (but I’m not going to, for reasons detailed later) and, most damagingly, the novel appears to have been conceived in the early 1990s. Hackers, anyone? That said, the book was a whole lot of fun. Thursday on the train to Wuppertal, I was giggling with joy so much that people looked at me strangely (even more than usual). Also, I have ordered it for a friend’s birthday immediately and will continue to recommend it in the future. It’s an insane amount of fun, plus it’s smart and really educational. Any novel for kids that references Emma Goldman and contains a bibliographic essay that recommends Ginsberg’s “Howl” is very commendable. And really, it’s an awful amount of fun.
So, since I just reminded myself of the fun, I’ll start with the good stuff. The story, set in San Francisco, is about four kids who are engaged in a game of Harajuku Fun Madness, which is a quiz/geocaching type of game. The four of them are high school kids who are talented computer/tech whizzes. Marcus Yallow, the main character, has loaded up on gadgets and trickery to circumvent his high school’s increasingly oppressive surveillance tricks. He is the captain of their Harajuku Fun Madness team, and almost indecently paranoid. His home computer, which he has built from scratch, by the way, downloads his email from the server once per minute and then deletes it from the server. During that game of Harajuku Fun Madness, something happens. Terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge, killing thousands in the process. The four kids are near the site of destruction and in the ensuing chaos they are picked up by a group of masked men and thrown into a van. As it turns out, the masked marauders are actually agents of the Department of Home Security (DHS), who suspect the four of being perpetrators of the attack or at least associates of the perpetrators. The fact that they have backpacks loaded with technical devices that are, as I mentioned, indecently well protected, isn’t helping either.
In the course of the next days they are tortured, mostly because the DHS agents are irritated that someone who is so paranoid and thorough with encryption would have nothing to hide. When they are turned out again, one among their number is missing and Marcus and friends are in a state of complete shock. The city, meanwhile, has stepped up the surveillance, control and persecution as we see the DHS taking control of the city. Marcus, humiliated, concerned for his friends, comes home to a father who is trumpeting patriotic hooey, to a school where social sciences has been taken over by a class where patriotism and the importance of the DHS are taught, etc.. The hacker can’t believe his eyes. Powered by a different kind of patriotic fervor (the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are quoted roughly 6 or 7 times throughout the novel) he decides to do something. Among other things this involves creating and maintaining an underground Internet-ish web (ok, before we continue here, let me just state that I am probably the most inept guy of my age group when it comes to computers and technology and related issues, so ’tis is very rough and probably wildly inaccurate. If you know my other reviews, you know I’m bad with details, but this is worse. I won’t even attempt to describe what the kid does with Xboxes and chips I never heard of.), and building devices which turn some of the surveillance mechanisms in place into a farce. This then evolves into a nonviolent guerrilla war, complete with a war for media control and the truth. As I said: loads of fun.
And it’s educational, too. Every kid who watches the news and starts to believe the toss about security, Doctorow hands him the intellectual tools to understand the idiocy of such statements, by putting all of this into context. He evokes hallowed American icons such as the Bill of Rights and the American tradition of dissent and revolution. This is a point worth making: Marcus is in strong disagreement with the way the society around him changed, and he rebels. He stands up and takes action. This is no dystopia, the America depicted is not much different from the America (or Germany) today. These changes are all imaginable and quickly implementable. Doctorow is suggesting to his young readers: what would you do? In the final chapter, with everything cleared up (Oh c’mon, it’s a genre novel.), Doctorow has his protagonist work at a company that seems very similar to Doctorow’s own boingboing.net, making it easy for his readers to make the connection to the here and now. In a way his is a fictional enterprise similar to Philip Roth’s The Conspiracy against America, but whereas Roth’s smooth end that blended into history as we know it, was the most damaging weakness of an otherwise great novel, Doctorow’s last chapter invites his audience to do as Marcus does. Read online material, rethink your ideas, stand up for your convictions, hack something.
Here is where my two main gripes with the book come in: ideas and audience. We’ll start with Audience. The book is strangely written. The style is simple and artless, it is functional and generic, which is not a bad thing necessarily. The book is not badly written. To write a book in a way that makes for fluid and fun reading is no mean achievement. What bothered me is something else. A novel that talks about a scene as specialized as Marcus’ and about technologies so far removed from everyday speech habits, needs to make sure that those in the know are not bored and that everybody else knows, roughly, what all the hullabaloo is about. The most obvious way to do this is to include a nincompoop who needs to have all the complicated ideas and terms explained to. This is not just the most obvious way to do it, it is also the most usual. So it’s refreshing that Doctorow’s tactic is different: he opts for the direct address: Marcus appears to talk to someone. Since he turns into a semi-professional blogger at the end it is safe to assume that Little Brother is some kind of extended blog entry. There are two problems with this: one is disappointment: direct address can make for great effect, as all sorts of books have shown (I’ll review two of them within the next week). The other is awkwardness. There are numerous irksome phrases. For instance, each time the word “h4wt” comes up in a circuitous, generic phrase I cringed. Doctorow clearly has trouble fitting these two registers of speech. But then, see, I don’t think he’s interested in doing that.
The same applies to to my second main gripe, his awkward juggling of ideas. His discussion of revolutionary action takes place on a backdrop of American patriotism. The Internet, and especially the hacker scene has, if my outsider’s perception is right, always been highly international. Doctorow is having none of this. He does sprinkle his stars-and-stripes menu with a few international guests, but they are always just that, guests on the sideline. The most impact that other countries’ journalists and hackers have is this:
Most notable is the global attention the movement has received. […] The issue came to a head last night, when the British Broadcasting Corporation’s National News Evening program ran a special report on the fact that no American broadcaster or news agency has covered this story. Commenters on the BBC’s website noted that BBC America’s version of the news did not carry the report.
This is criticism of America, but patriotic, righteous criticism: look what these countries are doing! Why are we not doing this? Thus, it fits the rhetoric, that the journalist, who finally steps up to the plate, is not just an American journalist, but a local one. But compared to other aspects, this is no major problem.
What is one is this: the American system is shown to be fundamentally sound. Again, there are hints: his friend Jojo is trying to cut down on his activities in the revolt because he is likely to be targeted first, as a Chicano American, but the fact that he’s merely afraid of this is a joke. The events after 9/11, in most western countries have demonstrated, that repression is not color-blind. Jojo makes his point well, he criticizes the racial bias of the judicial system:
White people get caught with cocaine and do a little rehab time. Brown people get caught with crack and go to prison for twenty years. White people see cops on the streets and feel a little safer. Brown people see cops on the streets and wonder if they’re about to get searched.
But Jojo isn’t caught, and in the prison where Marcus and his friends are held and tortured, Marcus sees a few Arabs, but that’s it. This discussion feels forced, and in contrast with the main points, it falls by the wayside, and fails to make any didactic impact. If this were not as didactic a novel as it is, it would not be its fault. But it is, and it is. I won’t even mention the fundamental affirmation of capitalism that Doctorow’s romantic idea of hacking puts forth. Well. The book has a clear didactic goal and a laudable one, as well. Doctorow may have chosen right when he decided to narrow his focus as he has done in this book. And this is something he shares with the great E.L., whose novels are also often very focused upon a didactic goal, trying to drive one particular point home. And the results, in E.L.’s case, are masterpieces such as The March. Does Little Brother fall short because the vision it presents it too pedestrian? Maybe.
For a different take on the topic, tune in next week, when I’ll review Charles Stross’ SF novel Halting State. Minus points: no Emma Goldman. Plus points: less flag-waving. I’ll see you.