Review: Little Brother

As a regular BoingBoing reader, I’ve heard a lot about Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.  It’s a book targeted at young adults that is pro-technology and pro-activism, both of which are of interest these days.  I found it kind of a mixed bag.

The technical discussions are all refreshingly sound. Doctorow does a really nice job of boiling tech down into (what I imagine are) easily digestible bites.  He also is adept at pulling out the parts of the technology that are relevant to privacy and risk in our modern surveillance state.  He tells the reader what’s important in clear engaging prose.

From what I know about participating in protests and activism in general – which is mostly second-hand – he seems to do the same for protests and attracting unwanted attention as well.  The catalyst for Little Brother‘s plot is that a bunch of kids get swept up in a government sweep during a crisis, and he pulls no punches about what can happen.  His honesty on this front is one of the book’s real strengths.  Even though the events come to a conclusion, he’s clear that that is a messy conclusion.  Being a lightning rod for powerful forces – or being in the wrong place at the wrong time – can permanently change a person’s life.  Activism has stakes, and he never shies away from relating them.

Honestly the worst part of the story is the fiction.  His intention seems clear to me.  He’s using a (lightly) fictionalized account of a government response to a terror attack in San Francisco to take readers through his primers on activism, technology’s role in it, and great places to eat in the mission district.  It’s a fine structure to hang a book on, and I suspect he can cite relevant reports for the majority of the details and incidents.

For me, though, his characters never quite breathe enough. Their roles as symbols or framing devices always stick out just a bit awkwardly.  As I say, there’s much to like about the factual content, research, and explication here.  I never get lost in the story, though.

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