Despite the running, Muay Thai, work, flat viewings and countless other activities I’ve been indulging in of late (not to mention writing on this damn thing) I’ve still managed to find time to read and recently finished a couple of truly great books, Anathem and
Little Brother, so I thought I’d share my thoughts about them in the hope that you”ll splash some cash and make their authors happy. I’m at work right now (naughty…) so this isn’t exactly going to be a professional book review, just a couple of paragraphs. I’ll go for Little Brother just now because it’s 350-ish pages of young adult fiction as opposed to nearly 1,000 pages of utterly mind-bending philosophy, religion, maths and tech – I’ll need a drink before I revisit that…
The premise of Cory Doctorow‘s Little Brother is very familiar to the point where you could almost be forgiven for thinking it was a fictional retelling of a true story, one of the key strengths of the book. Marcus is a young schoolkid in San Francisco, a pretty bright kid who knows his way around a computer, can easily fool his school’s security systems to allow him to escape when required and loves to play complex role-playing games involving tracking clues around the city. This last hobby lands him in trouble when he and three of his friends are caught at the wrong place and the wrong time, hanging around suspiciously in the streets of a run-down neighbourhood just as terrorists launch a devastating attack on the city, resulting in thousands of deaths. Marcus and co find themselves herded up by the Department Of Homeland Security, spirited off the mainland, imprisoned and tortured to find out what they know about the attack. Eventually three of them are released, battered, terrified and humiliated, with warnings that they are being watched constantly and will forever be under suspicion despite no evidence at all linking them to any terrorist activities. Sound familiar yet? Just wait.
Over the coming days Marcus realises that while he has been locked up the true forces of oppression have descended on his beloved city. The DHS have begun tracking people’s every move and arresting them simply for having unusual movement patterns. School teachers and pupils are suspended for daring to discuss such un-American activities as protest, free speech and the Constitution. Shops who wish to operate using credit cards are forced to spy on their customers for the privilege. Everyone is watching their neighbour, no-one trusts anyone else and the overwhelming majority believe that this is all in the name of protecting them from the terrorists.
Marcus is having none of this. What’s the point of being ‘safe’ if you are constantly terrified of those who are protecting you? Isn’t that what the terrorists were trying to achieve? So he sets out for revenge against the people who tortured him, ‘disappeared’ one of his friends and turned his city into a police state the only way he knows how – through being an uber-geeky hacker and turning the DHS’s tech against them.
The story moves along at a great pace and has all the characterisation you need to really get behind the main characters. Marcus is a fantastic anti-hero, a cool outsider with all the skills and tricks you want yourself but also enough flaws to make him believable. The supporting cast is equally strong, although at times I was straining to view Marcus’s dad’s reaction to events as realistic given his background. Still, that’s a minor gripe. Overall the depiction of characters and the city itself is fantastic, I now have a strong urge to visit SF for myself, see these locations first hand, taste the food and experience the atmosphere.
For me though the book’s strongest point was Doctorow’s thorough explanations and justification for every single activity Marcus engaged in to confound the feds. Every hack, every sneak, every spoof is described in great detail – even with suggestions of how to find out more on the subject – so any reader with sufficient interest will be able to go and try it for themselves. There is a detailed bibliography to augment this, so all told the book is nothing less than a modern-day insurrectionary handbook for teenagers! I truly wish I had been born 15 years later so I could be reading this book right now as a teenage kid, it’s the sort of book that would have truly changed my life and sent my future down all sorts of unexpected alleyways, sort of an uber-hip 1984 but one that absolutely reflects the current political climate in your own country.
In short it’s one of the best books I’ve read in ages and I strongly urge you to read it or download it. I normally never get rid of books under any circumstances but I’m donating this one to my local school’s library because I believe every kid should read it right now.
I’ll try to get round to writing something about Anathem this weekend but my mind is still reeling from it. Give it some processing time and I may be able to handle it…