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May 9, 2008

Filed under: fiction»reviews»doctorow_c

Book Review: Little Brother

Little Brother is Atlas Shrugged for teenage crypto-freaks. It's too long, too preachy, and too self-aware to function as a decent piece of fiction, and it's too frothing to convincingly act as rhetoric. It will probably be a huge hit online.

I'm unhappy that I feel this way, because I really did enjoy Cory Doctorow's previous book, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Although it too had its moments of "Look! A tech issue that Cory Doctorow thinks is cool!", the writing elsewhere more than made up for the awkward shoe-horning of Boing Boing material into the story, and there were decent narrative excuses for that material's presence.

Not so with Little Brother, which is explicitly attempting to be a primer on data privacy issues for 15-year-olds. Like most young adult fiction with a message, it fails on several levels: its hero is gratingly eager and overcompetent, the voice is an embarrassing imitation of "youth", and the villains are cardboard cutouts. I think the last point is the most annoying, because to me it's insulting to the reader. By ignoring many of the deeper political implications of the issues it raises, and reducing them instead to "bad people want to spy on us," Little Brother actually does a disservice to its readers.

Shrill. Shrill is the word I'm looking for. Little Brother has a kind of desparation to it, clearly informed by Doctorow's own feelings on data privacy issues. And while there are some readers who may respond to that, who may get a kick out of the step-by-step instructions for fighting The Man, I thought I would never be able to struggle through the last hundred pages of it. It's hard to say whether I would have felt the same way as a teenager--I used to read Piers Anthony, after all. I don't even know what I would recommend instead, but there's got to be something better than this. Maybe Doctorow can even write that book, now that he's gotten this one out of his system.

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