Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I believe it was Robert Heinlein who wrote that one mediocre science-fiction novel is worth more to civilization than a shelf-full of well-written general fiction. By this yardstick, Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing fame, is worth about one or two well-written general fiction books.

I like Cory, and I like Boing Boing, but Cory did not succeed in writing a mediocre science fiction book. Little Brother (download it for free here) is a really bad book with some good intentions, bad writing, very poor characterization, and a serviceable but ridiculous plot.


17 year old Marcus and friends live in San Francisco of the near future where surveillance is up and methods to avoid it are just as up. After a terrorist attack on the city, the powers that be clamp down even harder with a series of invasive and paranoid security measures, each one more ineffective than the last.

Early in the book, Marcus is picked up and released by Homeland Security for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but not before being terrorized as he futilely attempts to assert his rights. The DHS threatens him to keep his mouth shut, which he tries to do while still wreaking havoc under alias on an underground network, but he eventually decides to take his story to a reporter.


Cory's book reads like the unskilled ranting of a paranoid conspiracy lunatic. I'm on Cory's side with regards to the erosion of civil rights, ridiculous security systems, and so on, but this book is filled with paranoia so deep and one sided that it's reminiscent of the very worst parts of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (a comparison that I'm sure Cory will enjoy), without a semi-coherent philosophy to back it up. Cory's philosophy can neatly be summed up as "Surveillance and torture is bad! Fight the power! Don't trust anyone over 25!"

Marcus is the one-dimensional wet dream of every hacker wannabe; an infallible, unflappable super-libertarian with perfect technical skills who does everything right while everyone around him does everything wrong, unless they agree with him and fawn over him. Neither he, nor anyone else in the book has so much as a paint dollop of personality.

The author is so smug about his protagonist that it's actually painful to read. Marcus, and by so doing, the author himself, compares himself to the great revolutionaries of the sixties, the last stand between the overwhelming police state and the one shining star of freedom.

Cory's biggest mistake is treating his audience like they're idiots. Rather than present scenes where things happen, Cory spends more than half of the text in the first two-thirds of the book methodically pointing out very basic ideas about technology, ideology, and his version of liberty. Either his audience is smart enough to understand the gist, in which case these explanations are boring, or they aren't, in which case these explanations are boring. This is supposed to be a fiction novel, not a Wikipedia entry.

This is the cardinal sin of bad science fiction: you're supposed to tell a story, not describe technology. Technology is supposed to serve the story, not get in its way. Cory rattles on for paragraph after paragraph about how a particular piece of technology, software, or security system works without furthering the plot. All of these descriptions are unnecessary, and could have and should have been alluded to with a word or phrase, if or when required.

The story, as I said, is serviceable enough. It's pace picks up halfway through the book and might even keep you interested to see how the inevitable, highly predictable ending will come about. But calling the story one vast cliche is probably the understatement of the year.


If you want to read a highly unoriginal story with tedious asides about technology, polemics about Big Brother, and a smarmy, forgettable teenager who fights against the system using viral videos, be my guest. I dare you to get through the first chapter without shaking your head in disbelief.

If you want to be inspired, pick up books about real revolutionaries and heroes such as Nelson Madella, Mohandas Ghandi, or Natan Sharansky. If you want to know about hacker culture and security, there are any number of books that can supply your needs. Read websites, including Boing Boing nearly every week, about why torture is bad and government surveillance is useless and backwards.

The book has a lot of things going for it: It is being promoted strongly by Cory on one of the world's most popular blogs, it is being promoted by his friends who are great guys, too, some of whom are even great writers. It's a free download, and its release under Creative Commons is semi-noteworthy, and liable to generate some press just for that, maybe even viral press. Some of the ideas the book covers are important ideas, and well worth discussing in a more well-balanced forum.

But what it doesn't have is a well written book.


David Klein said...

Wow, harsh criticism!

I bet you get hit with a DMCA takedown notice :-)

james said...

Finally, some honest criticism of Doctorow's work!

Having slogged through Eastern Standard Tribe, I'm guaranteed not to volunteer to suffer Little Brother, though I thought I'd mention that most of the deficiencies you bring up with his most recent work are present in his prior work, as well. EST was also about the then ersatz-cognoscenti meme-du-jour (DRM sux, usability rules!!), and was marred by hackneyed writing and a hilariously poorly hidden Doctorow surrogate as the protagonist.

Thanks for having the guts to point out what is painfully obvious to anyone who has read his work and is not opining for a link from him: Cory Doctorow is a really, really bad writer.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. I found the book so tiresome I couldn't get through it. I don't think teenagers (the audience Doctorow says he's aiming for with this) will care or "get" it. Frankly, too much waffle and not enough story. You're right, the whole book is a cliche, and highly derivative - not even good enough to make an insult to George Orwell.

Anonymous said...

I can only imagine he is diligently working on 'The Thirst Games' or 'Twitter Space Ark 3000'. He is a bad SF writer.