In the ever-popular genre of Young Adult dystopian societies, there exists the story of Marcus Yallow, 17-year-old San Francisco high school student. Marcus is your typical paranoid-hacker-tech-savant who uses the school laptop for chatting and who tricks the gait tracking cameras so he can sneak out of school and play Harajuku Fun Madness, the best game ever. Marcus is playing hookie with his scavenger hunt teammates Darryl, Vanessa and Jolu in the Tenderloin District when the explosions start.
The whole world is trembling and the four kids scramble for the safety of the nearest BART station only to become overwhelmed by bodies pushing them, people being trampled underfoot. They desperately try to escape the horde, risking it topside; in the scramble, Darryl is stabbed. Marcus, brilliantly, attempts to wave down a passing emergency vehicle, though he unfortunately draws the attention of the Department of Homeland Security instead. His head is soon in a black bag, his wrists strung up behind him as he is thrown into some kind of truck, a prisoner of the DHS.
Literally, this book starts off with a bang. Within its first few chapters, terrorists have blown up the Bay Bridge in San Francisco and the Department of Homeland Security has been brought in to clean up the mess. However, in attempting this, they ruthlessly begin stripping Americans of their rights, interrogating and torturing children in the name of national security.
The torture and intimidation in this book really strikes close to home. We are not reading about some distant future populated with arenas or factions. Other books in this genre, such as Suzzane Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, play with those same themes of fear, government oppression, and paranoia, but they always feel more like fiction than fact. This book occurs in the near future in a world that is exactly like ours. Our government, torturing our youth, and society can do nothing about it. Not only is this book frighteningly possible, this scale of terrorist event has already happened! I would be remiss to discuss this novel with no mention of the attacks on 9/11. I would like to believe that none of the awful actions enacted by the U.S. government came close to occurring in reality in the years since 2001, and I hope that they never will.
To wit: Marcus, Van and Jolu are released after a week of dehumanizing interrogation and told that they are “marked;” if they mention being jailed they will be “removed.” Darryl is nowhere to be found. They do not even know if their friend is alive. After being released from the truck, Marcus feels someone wrap their arms around him and immediately reels away from the threat, terrified of taken again, only to realize it is his friend Van hugging him and crying.
Little Brother is told from the point of view of Marcus and it portrays his his struggle as a painful ordeal. One thing we learn very quickly about Marcus is that he is in fact paranoid. what starts as just an attempt to go online without being watched by the DHS turns into an all-out rebellion against the government. Marcus’ homemade laptop has been bugged so he turns to other technology. He pulls out his Xbox Universal that Microsoft gave away for free to everyone years ago and figures out how to run Paranoid Xbox to get him online. Everyone has an Xbox so he makes Paranoid Xbox CDs for his friends with the promise that they will make them for their friends and so on until the Xnet is born.
One of the reasons this book feels so real is that usage of familiar modern day technology. Even someone as tech-illiterate as myself recognizes the products Doctorow uses in the book. Who doesn’t know who Microsoft is? Doctorow takes this even further by going into tangents that explain how the technology Marcus is using is useful and why it works, such as an explanation of cryptos using extremely large prime numbers to encrypt data.
Marcus is paranoid about his government, but does what he does for what that government supposedly stands for. Marcus is a patriot. He can and does quote the Bill of Rights several times. He is not going to take this injustice lying down.
And yet he is also just a 17-year-old boy. He meets a girl, Ange, and she is totally into him. Marcus and Ange become partners in crime, a duo using the Internet to topple the government. They must do this while dealing with raging hormones and curfews. Doctorow does not push the sexual tension to the background, letting it happen in ways that may be too mature for some younger readers. We get to know what Marcus thinks of the many firsts he encounters with Ange in terms nowhere near as graphic as those used in George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire, but in terms the reader can not ignore. The all too realistic experience of Marcus falling in love for the first time helps ground the realism of Doctorow’s narrative, enforcing that this could totally happen tomorrow.
Of all of the dystopian novels I have read (and let’s be honest that is a long list, as you will find out), Little Brother scares me most. At the conclusion of the book, I immediately started its sequel, Homeland, because I really needed to know what happens to Marcus and Ange next. Doctorow’s book is a quick read, weighing in at 380 pages and sucking you in to frenzied page-turning. I was so worried about Marcus’ plans to mess with the DHS that I had to keep reading to make sure they didn’t have him in another black bag. Little Brother will leave you feeling wary of the American government but also hopeful for the American people’s ability to fight for what they believe in. Any story, fact or fiction, that can produce such an honest emotional reaction deserves to be read.