A major terrorist attack has hit San Francisco. Marcus and his friends, in the wrong place at the wrong time, are picked up by Homeland Security for a few grueling days. When they return home, they – and particularly Marcus – are horrified by the loss of privacy and civil rights perpetrated by Homeland Security in the name of safety. A computer nerd, Marcus starts to fight back, with computers, cryptography, and the idealistic youth of San Francisco as his weapons. As more and more people become involved in his clandestine XNet, his creation slips more and more out of his control.
The major problem with Little Brother is that it’s trying to serve two masters. People who are attracted to it are likely to be interested in computers and cryptography, and therefore to come to the novel with some preexisting knowledge of the subject. Of course, it cannot be safely assumed that all of its readers have such knowledge. So it has to do a fair bit of teaching. I believe it generally succeeds at imparting the necessary information, but it does not succeed in making the lessons interesting. The novel is narrated in the first person; Doctorow simply has the narrator offer straightforward descriptions of cryptography, binary, Linux, and the like.
This would be boring even if one has not already read Neil Stephenson, but for someone who has all of this material taught in Stepheson’s brilliantly creative narrative digressions, it’s rather interminable.¹ I’m not asking for Doctorow to try to be Stephenson² – few things are worse than a novelist who doesn’t trust his own voice – but I think it’s valid to ask that teaching in a novel be delivered via a more interesting medium than a visit from the Exposition Fairy.
This frequent mini-lectures also have the unfortunate effect of increasing
the didacticism of an already didactic book.
Little Brother is largely an expression of Doctorow’s dissatisfaction with the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, much as William Sleator used Test to express his dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind. In both cases, I generally agree with both authors’ liberal biases, but I wish both had expressed their points of view with a touch more subtlety. Little Brother is a much better book than Test, but it is ultimately dissatisfying; while a major point of the book is “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25” – after 25, ways of thinking are too set and one is too invested in the status quo – it seems 37-year-old Doctorow doesn’t trust his teenage readers to see the flaws in the system without his help.
¹ For instance, in The Diamond Age, he teaches binary using a clockwork castle.
² Or other authors who need to present a lot of facts in their narratives. Another example would be Junot Diaz’s use of humor footnotes to impart large chunks of Dominican Republic history in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.