This review was originally posted on October 14th, 2008. Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is a 2009 Hugo Award nominee for Best Novel.
Little Brother (Tor) only came out this summer, but I’m kind of assuming you’ll have heard of it, whether or not you’ve read it.
One of the things I’ve noticed since I’ve been doing this here is that there are books I expect people to have heard of and books I expect them not to have heard of. (By and large, I’m right about this. Books I think people won’t have heard of may have a few very enthusiastic fans, but I also get comments saying “Thanks for the rec.”) I approach them in a different way. If I think people already know about a book, I feel less need to introduce it before I start talking about it. I worry less about spoilers. My angle of approach is different.
Little Brother is definitely one of the ones I think you’ve heard of. This is partly because Cory is an internet star, and it’s partly because the book had a big and well deserved push, with lots of blurbs from lots of writers (including me) and has had a lot of well-deserved attention and is a New York Times bestseller. But it’s also partly because there was a spoiler thread about it on Making Light, which makes me feel that everyone I know knows all about it.
The thing about it though is that it’s such a compelling read. The first time I read it, I literally didn’t put it down. I started reading it in bed one night and kept on reading it until 2am. This time I did manage to put it down, just about, but I still zipped through it at top speed. (It’s not as much fun reading something in manuscript as you probably think. You have to wait months to talk to other people about it, which turns out to be just as bad as waiting to read it yourself.)
There are people who don’t like first person smartass voices. I happen to be a sucker for them. Marcus is a seventeen year old hacker and the book is written in a voice of almost gleeful explanation, that just slightly patronising voice of any teenager explaining anything to any parent. Marcus is such a plausible character, too. He’s just doing so many things for the first time, in a near-future world that’s changing and becoming scarier every day. It’s a gripping edge-of-the-seat story, and it’s a lovely reading experience.
There are periods of history that seem to produce art. Sometimes they’re ages with patrons—Maecenas gathering Horace, Virgil and Ovid, the Medici Popes gathering Leonardo and Michaelangelo, John Campbell gathering Heinlein, Asimov, etc. Other times they seem to just happen, like the Romantic Poets, or happen in response to events, like the First World War poets. Yet there are huge events that don’t produce an outpouring of art. There was Second World War poetry, but I only know about it because of doing too much research. (The only person who wrote any that you may have heard of is Alex Comfort, who is of marginal SF relevance because of his ghastly Tetrarch, and of general interest because of The Joy of Sex.)
It seems to me that recent world history, depressing as much of it has been to live through, is one of those events that is evoking art. Some people might decry the gloom of SF, but it seems to me that we’re having an outpouring of really interesting and relevant politically motivated art that we wouldn’t have had without it. Spartan. Never Let Me Go. Little Brother seems to be a terrific example.
There are, of course, a couple of problems with politically motivated art. Firstly, undigested politics makes for lumpy stories—and I find this a worse problem when I do agree with the politics than when I disagree. Secondly, some people disagree with the politics so vehemently that they can’t read the story for it, even if the writer has digested it enough, and likewise, there are people who agree so much that they’ll overlook the fact that something is the most awful crap.
For me, in my personal opinion, Doctorow knows what he’s doing with the story he’s telling. He doesn’t let the politics—though they are overtly a part of it—get in the way of the characters or the story.
But it is definitely a fantasy of political agency. It’s about a teenager growing up in San Francisco on what’s clearly the day after tomorrow. He feels like a teenager, but he does change the world. When I was thinking about what Bujold meant I thought of this right away. It’s a plausible story in the sense that I buy every moment of it leading from every other moment when I’m reading it, I have no suspension of disbelief issues, but when I stop to think now about whether one person—one kid—could achieve all that
But it’s a great page-turning read. I suspect that in future times, in one of those great ironies, it’ll be assigned reading in schools, and the kids reading it will think they’re reading about 2008—and they almost will. Meanwhile, do read it if you haven’t yet.