Tuesday, May 11, 2010

1984 with hope

Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. New York: Tor, 2010.

Little Brother> finally came out in paperback, and I picked it up at the LA Times Festival of Books a few weeks ago. Yesterday, I was feeling a bit icky and decided to relax and read for a little while, so I started Little Brother, and I didn't stop reading until I was done. It's extremely derivative of George Orwell's 1984, but I think I like Cory Doctorow best when he's riffing on Orwell. It's a lot more hope and action oriented than 1984, so that it feels like the kind of book that could change the world if kids read it at the right time. This is a book I want to give to people and make them read. I haven't decided for sure yet who I'm giving this book to, but I definitely need to pass it on.

This is the story of Marcus, who sometimes goes by w1n5t0n, a 17-year-old boy who is picked up by the Department of Homeland Security for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When San Francisco becomes a DHS police state, Marcus takes action and becomes, somewhat inadvertently, the hacker king leading an army of teenagers to question authority and overthrow the system. Throughout the book, Marcus learns (and Doctorow provides fun little lectures) about revolutions, civil disobedience, technology, and civil rights movements from the American Revolution to the Yippies and the EFF. Even better, there's just enough information about the technology to make it exciting and to encourage readers to want to learn more. It even made me want to take another stab at Cryptonomicon, which I have started about 5 times and never managed to get through the first chapter or two. Hopefully, this book will inspire young people to change the world, which is a scary and dangerous thought but also makes things exciting.

If I have one complaint about the book, it's the female characters. First, there are a lot of them, which is a good start. Marcus's mom, a female reporter, a female teacher, a female friend, a girlfriend, a female badguy, and a female nemesis all play important roles in the book, but they all mostly feel like functionaries defined only in relation to Marcus rather than actual characters with complexity and independent interests. I don't think the book passes the Bechdel test, but I welcome corrections if I'm wrong about that. I would love to see a version of this story about a female geek/hacker and I wish that characters from this story such as Marcus's female friend and his pink-haired hacker nemesis had appeared more and been more throughly developed. Nonetheless, I think that this is a story that girls will like because the story itself is fun and compelling, even though it is definitively a boy book. I just think the world needs the girl version of this. Who is out there writing it?

If you liked Little Brother, I recommend: 1984 (of course), John Scalzi's Zoe's Tale (because it has a (female!) teen protagonist doing her own thing in the midst of a kind of techno-war), and Daniel Suarez's Daemon (for a different kind of techno-revolution, although this one is much more adult and much less hopeful). I also want to check out Doctorow's new YA book, For the Win, as soon as possible (given my aversion to hardcover books) - it's about video games and gold farming and appears from the sample at the end of Little Brother to have at least one female main character.

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