Thursday, September 15, 2011

Read This Book

Months and months ago (probably over a year, maybe more) the sci fi/fantasy parts of the internet were ablaze with news of Cory Doctorow's book, Little Brother. I dutifully made note, put it in my To Read shelf on GoodReads and didn't think much more about it. Every time since then that I've read or heard his name I've thought, "Oh yeah, that guy that wrote that book that everyone was talking about. Should be a good read." I took a long overdue trip to the library and while in the YA section followed a whim to check for Doctorow's name. I read the jacket blurb of Little Brother, since I hadn't read any of the reviews, and thought, "Huh, well, ok."

Here is my short version review: Everyone should read this book.

Here is the longer version (with some spoilers but as few as I can manage):

Little Brother is, in essence, a magnified re-telling of the story of living in New York during and after September 11, 2001. For comfort's sake Doctorow never says that and he sets it in San Francisco but that's what it is. It was entirely coincidental, and perhaps not terribly smart, that I read it before, during and after the 10th anniversary of 9/11 while living in New York but I'm not sorry I did.

The main character, Marcus Yallow, is a teenager who is accidentally near a catastrophic bombing of the Bay Bridge and is caught up in the subsequent law enforcement sweep of the area. His treatment in jail and his reaction, nay his actions, after his release are the bones of the story. The flesh on those bones is a remarkably thorough yet accessible lesson on the benefits and disadvantages of both activism and celebrity.  You'd think that might be too heavy a burden to lay on the shoulders of a fictional 17-year-old but Yallow manages to be believable while accomplishing what our real world has not in terms of freedom fighting. I will say, though, that had I not visited San Francisco before reading Little Brother I might have found him hard to swallow. Along with its rich history of activism the city cultivates the kind of men and women who are ass kicking and name taking without being disconnected from their more vulnerable emotions. Doctorow reveals all manner of joy and pain in Yallow without making him seem foolish or disingenuous.

I lived in New York City on 9/11. I still do. In fact I have, by and large, refused to leave ever since due to a, perhaps unfounded, need to stake my claim on a piece of home that was, figuratively, in continental shift. I don't talk about it a lot. As I noted on the 10th anniversary of the attacks Marcus Yallow says, "In the telling, it receded into the distance." That's not a distance I am yet ready to engage. On the other hand, since I believe that telling our stories is vitally important to bettering our world, I leak bits and pieces out when it seems that keeping them to myself is doing more harm than good.

For over a year after September 11th I walked daily past National Guardsmen, federal snipers and extra security personnel. I saw more automatic weapons and long range weaponry in that year than in all the years before it put together. To this day NYPD puts up random "check points" in subways where they are legally allowed to "randomly" search the belongings of transit riders. I have never been searched. I am a white, female adult. For many months after the attacks office buildings made you pass through metal detectors or have your bags scanned to enter, including Citicorp Center, a popular mall equivalent in a posh, businessy part of midtown. I mention only a small cross section of measures taken to "ensure public safety."

Not one of these measures has ever made me feel safe. Not safe in general and not safer than before. If anything they make me feel less safe. A knot of National Guardsmen at a popular arena make me tense in anticipation of the coming attack because, they know as well as I do, there is nothing their lingering presence can do to prevent it. It will be nice, I suppose, to have them immediately on scene to assist in the clean up but let's be sure we know that's what they're there for. A thinking person, seeing these impotent measures being taken, cannot help but analyze them, break them down and line them up against the arguable brilliance of a group of angry, motivated men on September 11, 2001. One side of the line thinks one step ahead of the race, one yard beyond the goal, one inch outside the envelope. That is not the side of random bag searches, barefoot strolls through metal detectors, and civil liberties violations.

But don't take my word for it. Take Cory Doctorow's. I make it sound all sober and philosophical and academic. He knits a rollicking adventure out of computer programming, cryptography and rampant teenage hormones. (Please stay tuned in the coming days for my praise of his handling of teenage sexuality over at Kizz & Tell.) I, who stumbled through Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon like the addled leading the blind, was able to follow the brilliant and complex building of a whole new, beautifully rebellious internet by this sweet, kind idiot of a boy, Marcus Yallow, in the name of freedom, justice and the American Way.

Please don't wait as long as I did to read Little Brother. It is everything we need in Young Adult Literature (well, almost, Doctorow does write great women but I always want more) and in patriotic thinking. Oh, and keep reading after it's over. Doctorow invited experts in cryptography and security to include essays about their fields and how they are relevant to learning, careers and citizenship. These essays are some of the greatest gifts I've seen for curious, intelligent, creative thinkers in our coming generations. When you're done please come back here so we can talk about it. I can't wait to talk about it!

Thank you Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi for turning me on to this book. Thank you Clinton Hill Library for stocking it. Thank you Cory Doctorow, of course, for writing a book that so respectfully addresses so much that breaks my heart and boils my blood about the aftermath of 9/11. Most of all, though, thank you Marcus Yallow for being a smart, brave example to all of us, even though you are imprisoned between the covers of a book.


  1. just got it for FOUR DOLLARS and free shipping with my Prime student acct. BAM!

  2. damn that sounds good. did you return it yet?