I haven’t read anything by Cory Doctorow since Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town first came out. Part of that is because that story blew. Part of it is also because my best friend was banned from Boing Boing after making a perfectly reasonable, but contrary, comment on one of Cory’s posts at that blog. (In fairness, I don’t know that it was Cory who banned him – it may have been some overambitious site moderator.) Both of those things have left bad tastes in my mouth, and when I get a bad taste from something, I tend not to taste it again.
I changed my mind with regard to Little Brother after taking Dr. Amy H. Sturgis’s Dystopian Tradition class at The Mythgard Institute. In that class, we read George Orwell’s classic 1984 (full review) and discussed later books that built on Orwell’s ideas. Little Brother came up, and after hearing that it was nominated for a number of awards and won several of them, I decided that perhaps it was worth picking up.
Upon reading the book, however, I had some problems with it. And I will take them here one by one.
This may seem a minor point, but I have a problem calling this book “science fiction.” Looking at how the book is classified on Goodreads and elsewhere, it seems most people don’t have that same qualm. Many of the awards the book received or was nominated for are generally given to science fiction works (Prometheus Award, John W. Campbell Award, Hugo Award for Best Novel, etc.). So yes, I realize that I am in the minority here.
There is, of course, a long and sordid history of trying to define science fiction as a genre. I could point to perhaps dozens of definitions by various writers and critics and show how Little Brother doesn’t fit with each particular one – but honesty would require me to admit that the book does fit within the bounds of many other definitions.
Anyway, my primary qualm with calling this a science fiction work is due to the presentness of it. Science fiction doesn’t necessarily have to take place in either the past or the future, or even an alternate reality (though much of it does one or more of those things). If it’s going to work in the present, then there should be an extrapolation of something new based on modern science. I’m not sure this book does that.
Doctorow does describe some minor extensions of current, or then-current in 2008, technology. For example, the “Xbox Universal” is a free version of Microsoft’s popular gaming platform that nobody uses but apparently keeps around. ParanoidLinux is a flavor of Linux (duh!) that encrypts everything, uses TOR routing, and has a high noise-to-signal ratio, among other things. (Supposedly, the fictional operating systems inspired a short-lived real-world namesake.) But these things seem less like extrapolations of scientific principles and more like deus ex machine plot devices.
Consider this: Say someone writes a book about a kid who rigs his car to go a little faster than most cops’ cars. He doesn’t really develop anything new, just does some jiggery pokery using cheap parts from the junkyard to eke out a little more speed. Yes, there’s something technical and possibly even sciencey going on there, but for the most part it’s pretty mundane. It might be a good story, especially if the kid was constantly just one step ahead of the cops, but it would hardly be a science fiction story.
But say instead the boy in our story develops an awesome new rocket that propels the car several times faster than the heretofore fastest land vehicle. Simultaneously, he also has to use his knowledge of physics and engineering to come up with new safety devices to prevent injury from G-forces, a sturdier frame to keep the vehicle from falling apart, etc. There might still be cops that the kid has to get away from, but then the story becomes more about the his use of science and technology to affect his world.
These days, and even five years ago when Little Brother was published, computers are more ubiquitous than cars, and gone is the time when merely using a computer, or even poking around in one, automatically makes a story science fiction. In Little Brother, Marcus doesn’t exactly jack into a cyberdeck or strap any rockets onto his laptop. That doesn’t make it a bad story, but it does force us to ask the question what kind of story it is.
Which brings me to my next point.
The Didactic Tale
Throughout Little Brother, Doctorow writes what amount to mini-howtos on the workings of wifi, RFID (apparently some people pronounce this “arphid”), encryption and a few other things. Most of this exposition is done in the narrative, rather than the dialog – so there’s nothing like, “Well, as you know Bob, the thingamajobbie works by…” before the detailed explanation about how the thingamajobbie works.
This is where the not-being-science-fiction comes into play. Such exposition is absolutely necessary when explaining concepts and ideas that readers are unlikely to be familiar with. For example, in 1940 Heinlein needed to go into some detail about the concept of Douglas-Martin sun-power screens because solar power wasn’t ubiquitous yet. Such descriptions about novel technological concepts probably fascinated readers. Today, spending a lot of time on the technical workings of solar energy cells likely would probably bore most readers.
The situation is different in Little Brother. Because contemporary readers likely use the technologies described in the book on a daily basis, the exposition is mostly unnecessary. Even though Doctorow does a pretty good job of boiling down complex concepts for popular consumption, the exposition is still an interruption in the narrative, and not always a timely one.
The amount of exposition also calls into question the status of this book as a young adult novel. The way it’s written, Little Brother seems rather closer to a novel written for older adults who want to feel like they’re reading a young adult story, but who need a little help understanding the technology that the kids are using these days. And let’s not forget that Doctorow was well over the book’s frequently touted age of suspicion (25) when he wrote it.
I think the biggest problem here is that Doctorow seems to have set out to Make A Point rather than to tell a story. Stories can have purpose, but when the purpose drives story, instead of the other way around, it will always feel heavy handed.
First, can someone explain to me what a “severe haircut” looks like on a woman? I keep picturing Homeland Claire Danes, except with a crew cut.
One of the great things about Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and other stories about top-down societal control is that the people we come to think of as enemies are intelligent, thoughtful and conflicted. In 1984, it is almost impossible not to be impressed with O’Brien while simultaneously reviling him. In Brave New World, Mustapha Mond has a great deal of understanding and insight, and it’s even possible to sympathize with him for the choices he has to make, though ultimately we might disagree with those choices.
In Little Brother, Doctorow gives almost none of that nuance. In the book, the DHS personnel are single-minded caricatures of authoritarian control who perseverate about security and the need for secrecy and how the Constitution just gets in the way. At the same time, they’re bumbling idiots who can’t figure out that a group of teenagers led by Marcus are constantly thwarting their plans.
The problem is that the portrayal of the bad guys ultimately fails the ideological Turing test. Doctorow doesn’t take the time to understand the motives of the DHS agents any further than, say, the Daily Koz would take the time to understand the motives of the president of the NRA. A pat political justification appears to be sufficient rationale.
While this might be fine for real-world politics, it from a story-telling perspective it’s somewhat lazy. More interesting than would have been DHS agents that we can actually feel some compassion for because we appreciate why they take the stance they do, like in 1984 and Brave New World. And that could even have been done without acquiescing to the society they want to dominate.
While I think that Little Brother has some pretty big problems, I should note that I mostly agree with Doctorow’s perspectives in the book. I especially like his use of the Declaration of Independence as a motivating force for Marcus, and all things considered I think he makes some poignant statements about the danger and efficacy of security theater, the propensity for people to become lax toward their government as they grow older, and the fallacy of clamping down on dissent.
I also realize that there are a lot of people who quite like this book, and perhaps even some of them are young adults. If this gets people talking about important issues, then I suppose in some sense the artistry of it doesn’t matter. And besides, I’m almost 36, so you probably shouldn’t trust my opinion anyway.