Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother

 

Marcus aka “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works–and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.

But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they’re mercilessly interrogated for days.

When the DHS finally releases them, his injured best friend Darryl does not come out. The city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: “M1k3y” will take down the DHS himself.


 

I started reading this book expecting to be as blown away as I was four years ago, but I think I’ll settle for 3.5 out of 5 (or 3.75) stars this time.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, I did a lot in fact, it was just I wasn’t inclined to give this book full 5 stars which I did the last time.

Firstly, the writing; I think the writing is decent and strong overall, but there were some scenes that failed to peak the tension and excitement as much as I had hoped; it felt slippery and underwhelming at times. However, as I said it’s pretty gripping and intense and I liked this book is told in the first person, through Marcus’s narration which I personally think made this book more engaging.
What bothered me was the volume of ‘tech talks’ in this book. This book deals with a lot of cyber issues such as Internet privacy, electric surveillance, coding, snooping, cryptography etc, etc. Although these talks are accompanied by a crash course along with ample examples, as the story proceeds and gets more complicated, I started to feel it a bit overwhelming. I did think Cory Doctrow did a great job of breaking technical aspects down to bitable pieces, but you might find it a bit over your head if you are not a tech-savvy. It is OK that you don’t understand all the tech talks in this book (because I didn’t), it is totally enjoyable even if you just follow the main plot, but it might be a good idea to know the basics prior to reading this.

As for the characters, other than the protagonist, Marcus, none of the other characters left much impact on me; I didn’t find the characters are fleshed out enough.
In this book, Marcus attempts to save his best friend, Darryl, who is still held captive by the Department of Homeland Security and goes to such length of waging a war against the government. However, the bond between those two characters is not drawn well enough so Marcus’s desperate attempts to save Darryl didin’t strike me as strongly as I would have liked. As for Ange, the love interest and who was supposed to be an impactful character that drives Marcus forward – felt one-dimensional, too. Overall, all the characters felt a bit lackluster and underdeveloped.

I think what kept me going was the plot. It is gripping right from the beginning and entertaining to read through. The plot itself is pretty simple but it’s got some exciting and thrilling sometimes devastating twists scattered throughout the book.
I particularly liked the execution of the Operation False Positive; it describes how Marcus sucks down the numbers of others’ credit cards, their car keys, passports, every sort of identification that proves who is who and then swaps them with someone else’s unnoticed. It beautifully illustrates how sharp and smart he is; it was pretty exhilarating to read. Brilliantly done.

What jumps out about this book is the author incorporated some history lessons such as the freedom campaign and civil rights movements into the main plot. Through this sequence, we get to see how our predecessors fought against the authorities and the government for our fundamental human rights, for freedom of speech, how many lives had lost and how the United States has become a ‘free country’ as it is today. Since this sequence is done against the backdrop of social studies classroom and includes some enlightening discussions, it comes into me quite naturally, it doesn’t come across preachy but it definitely brings such issues to our attention and I appreciated that.
I also enjoyed Marcus’s transformation that takes place as the story goes. In the beginning, he is just an incredibly smart 17 year-old high school student who can easily outsmart school surveillance system. But after the bombing attack and the detention by DHS, being stripped away first his privacy then his dignity – he becomes more Constitution-minded and realizes how much he loves his country and values freedom and then wants to take back what has been lost since the attack.
Although I don’t find the romance between Marcus and Ange necessary, given the ensuing development in the latter part, I can make sense out of it.

Overall, I enjoyed this re-read. There are parts that I found a bit redundant and drag which could have been cut, but the last 30% of the book is definitely exciting, it’s a page-turner.
If you are a tech-savvy and like this type of genre, it’s recommended.
Even if you’re not, I think you’ll end up enjoying this. It would be definitely better if you had some knowledge of Internet technology though.

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