December 5, 2009

Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother”

I read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother a few weekends ago, and I loved it. I think it’s a good book, let me explain why.

Doctorow recently wrote about how sci-fi is really about the present and not about the future on his blog ( )

Mary Shelley wasn’t worried about reanimated corpses stalking Europe, but by casting a technological innovation in the starring role of Frankenstein, she was able to tap into present-day fears about technology overpowering its masters and the hubris of the inventor. Orwell didn’t worry about a future dominated by the view-screens from 1984, he worried about a present in which technology was changing the balance of power, creating opportunities for the state to enforce its power over individuals at ever-more-granular levels.

And while I don’t know that I wholly agree with him, that view point permeates this book. This book is about a not-too-distant future where a terrorist attack had created an atmosphere where people are willing to trade their freedom for the illusion of safety. In other words, it’s about the world we live in today.

This is a “Young Adult” YA novel with a 17 year-old hacker protagonist who goes up against the government to take his city back after the attack. It a good story, a fast read, and hart to put down. But intertwined in the tecno-geek thriller fun are things that are good to understand about the world we live in now.

When I was reading this book it reminded me strongly of Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (one of my favorite books from one of my favorite authors).  I reread it about a year and half ago, and while Heinlein missed on lots of tech stuff the core of what he was writing about was still relevant, still interesting, and the book is still a great read today. He writes about (mind you in 1966) artificial intelligence, alternate social/family configurations, freedom, and revolution.

Heinlein often wrapped up his ideas about humanity and society into these wonderful easy to consume stories.  As a result these stories often had long pieces of exposition that where necessary to convey the concepts. These stories had a great effect on me in my youth, opening my mind and making me–I believe–a better person.

This is the same thing Doctorow is doing in Little Brother. He’s writing about technology, privacy, freedom and safety in our post-911 world. Yes, there are long “educational” passages, but it rarely slows the story down and is interesting. Yes, the sci-fi is not far future, and there are no ray-guns or space ships, but it is still fun. Yes, it’s written for young adults, but this not-so-young adult really enjoyed (and learned from it)

He’s definitely got a message that he wants to get across and is not shy about it, but it is an important message. And even if you don’t agree with his politics, what this book has to say is worth hearing and considering. And along the way you will learn a lot about cryptography, networks, surveillance and other relevant topics.

Heinlein set my expectations of what good sci-fi should do: It should entertain, educate and make you think. Doctorow does that here.

Highly recommend. I hope lots of Young Adults and Older Adults read this book.

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Robert J. McCarter

Robert J. McCarter is the author of more than ten novels and over a hundred short stories...... learn more

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