My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read a lot of Fantasy novels but I’ve found Sci Fi more tricky as a genre. I know some people say that they are essentially the same, you just swap the elves and goblins for robots and aliens, but I usually find that reading Sci Fi is like reading a book where you understand all the words but don’t fully grasp the meaning. I always felt there was some greater significance that I couldn’t quite reach. It never really resonated with me.
Little Brother changed all that. If you’d said to me this time last year that I’d be so glued to a Sci Fi novel involving hackers, Government conspiracies and headstrong teenagers running around trying to save the day, I’d have just laughed. Yet yesterday found me on a long car trip squinting in the gathering darkness just to get through a few more pages.
So what’s it all about? Little Brother tells the story of Marcus, a mildly rebellious 17 year old who gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and finds everything he believed about his life in San Francisco turned upside down. But what’s different about Marcus is that his experience doesn’t cow him into submission; it drives him to fight back.
One of the scary things about this story is that it’s all based in reality. Maybe the whole sequence of events hasn’t happened exactly like in the book, but it could. Pretty much all of the individual elements are plausible in the real world. Doctorow also really nails the sense of alienation so key to Fantasy and Sci Fi alike, but again, through the very real generation gap between teenagers and adults.
There are a few things that I might have wished were done differently, but these are minor and don’t really affect the central plot. For instance, the relationship between Marcus and his parents is very well drawn and nuanced. In contrast, I felt that his relationship with his friends, even those who were closely involved in the main action, seemed a bit distant. I didn’t see much evidence of a meaningful connection between them (though this may have been because the story is told in the first person – I suppose a 17 year old boy wouldn’t necessarily wax lyrical about platonic love!) I also personally found the last fifth or so of the book a little bit rushed. There was so much care and attention paid to setting the world, context and plot up, that I would have appreciated a bit more time to take in the run to the eventual culmination of the story.
Overall though, I think this is a brilliant look at how vulnerable we can be in a society that is structured around the good and the others. It shows how easy it is to become an Other, even if you haven’t done anything wrong, and how that definition of otherness isn’t static but is something easily manipulated by those with hidden agendas.
For teens: a great YA book that will show you how to question the world you live in
For adults: a must-read that will show you that older doesn’t necessarily mean cleverer or superior.