Little Brother plays to one of my worst fears, even a phobia: the abuse of power by petty officials. Border crossings are particularly troubling for me, as for years I was exactly the sort of person into whose backpack less-reputable individuals might slip something, to be reclaimed on the other side. I am not usually paranoid, but I must admit to repeated anxiety every time we approached a border or airport security in our years travelling around Europe and Asia. So imagine my response to the opening scenes of Little Brother, in which Marcus and his friends are arrested as terrorists, merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cory Doctorow’s intent of causing the reader to question the balance of power in post-9/11 America was thus particularly effective for me. I almost put the book down, so worried was I of where the novel might take me. Then I remembered I have read all of Robert Cormier’s novels (one after another—do that and try to avoid depression and trauma), how bad could it get? I am so glad I persevered, as Doctorow’s protagonist is a brilliantly constructed example of my favourite type of teen geek, one who understands his own ability with technology—the power of the future—and yet is young and naïve enough not to understand fully the political powers that control his reality. He is a combination of so many real teens and the rarer breed: young hot-shot techno-geeks. His type—and thus his character—fascinates me.
Marcus (aka M1K3Y in 1337-speak) takes on the American Department of Homeland Security and wins: a situation that should not be possible and in most narrative instances would not be plausible. Doctorow, however, constructs his plot carefully, and we believe in Marcus’s ability to orchestrate the pranks he does, as well as the governmental responses to them. Power in the novel shifts back and forth between the teen rebels and the DHS until finally Marcus realizes the severity of what he has started, the degree to which others are suffering for his cause. The ideological aspects of his decisions are not glossed over; he has to seriously consider his own motivations, what he is asking of those around him as well as supporters he has never met. In the end, he does what I always want teen protagonists to do at such times, but so few: he goes to sympathetic adults for advice and assistance. Little Brother is thus not merely about teenaged power wielded against the adult world, as so many YA novels are, but about the conscious activism of individuals with integrity against corruption and the abuse of power. By making Marcus’s situation a part of a greater ideological battle, Doctorow raised the bar for YA literature. I’m not saying Little Brother is unique in this—Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, and Cheryl Rainfield’s Hunted spring to mind—but it seems that YA literature tends toward the self-absorbed teen perspective in a way that is both present and yet transcended in Little Brother.