Book Review: Little Brother

In the wake of a near-future terrorist attack, some teens run afoul of the Department of Homeland Security—and become American revolutionaries in the process. Cory Doctorow’s novel, one of three YA books nominated for best novel at this year’s Hugo Awards, also serves as a primer of sorts.

Title: Little Brother

Author: Cory Doctorow
ISBN: 0765319853, 9780765319852
First published: 2008.

Available from and


In the very near future, terrorists strike San Francisco. A group of teen hackers who happen to be near the site find themselves guests of Homeland Security in an America too ready to treat its constitution like a piece of paper. As a result of their experiences, some of them orchestrate a response that grows larger than they originally imagined.

High Points:

Little Brother manages to be both a suspenseful YA thriller and a primer on any number of useful things: hacking, cryptography, security, internet anonymity, surveillance, and arphids. It explains why we might be too paranoid about things that have little chance of affecting us and not paranoid enough about some very real dangers. It tells you how to detect hidden cameras. (It also posits “Paranoid Linux,” which, thanks to this book, is now in development). As with many classic SF books, I am willing to overlooks flaws in Little Brother because it can get people thinking.

Low Points:

The aforementioned strength also manages to be a serious weakness. Too much of the story gets dragged down by straightforward explanation of these topics, and too much didacticism.

Doctorow has written a passable YA novel, but it lacks the ageless quality of Gaiman’s Graveyard Book. This reads like a YA novel, circa 2008. It’s very straightforward, its protagonist is precocious and ideologically pure beyond belief, its dialogue too preciously after-school-special-hip, its ending too perfect, and the love story and accompanying sensual scenes very awkward.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6. Doctorow stuffs several interesting ideas and YA conventions into a fairly formulaic techno-thriller.

Imagery: 5/6:

Story: 4/6. The premise kept me interested. It needed more unexpected twists. The ending we have to take with consideration of the intended audience and, to be honest, it provides a certain satisfaction.

Characterization: 4/6. Characterization in the novel is uneven. Marcus’s father makes for an interesting study, and the teachers are amusing parodies of familiar types. Ange reads like pure wish-fulfillment for a protagonist who has a serious touch of the Mary-Sue. The villains are caricatures.

Emotional Response: 4/6 I found the story featured some moving moments, particularly when it showed the personal effects of a country turned against its own citizens. Consider the latter glimpses of Darryl, for example. Marcus’s reactions as he realizes his father supports Homeland Security seem scarily real.

Editing: 4/6. This book contains some amusing turns of phrase and interesting exposition, but stylistically, it requires reworking.

Overall score: 5/6. In spite of its flaws, I find myself recommending this to teenagers I know.

In total, Little Brother receives 29/42

5 replies on “Book Review: Little Brother”

  1. Right. My thoughts on Best Novel, 2009 Hugo Awards:

    Big Brother I have reviewed above.

    John Scalzi has been nominated for Zoe’s Tale. He’s written another good read, but I don’t think he’s got his Hugo yet.

    Charles Stross has written better books than Saturn’s Children and not won, so I doubt he’ll win this time. However, he remains a writer to read and watch, he has won in other categories before, and he will eventually get a best novel Hugo, I am convinced.

    Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is the heaviest of this year’s nominated works, in literal and metaphoric weight– and in ponderousness. I think it will fare well.

    Neil Gaiman has the “Guest of Honor” advantage, and I think The Graveyard Book will take it, though some people may be reluctant to vote for a YA.

    • Anathem deserves a Hugo, the man is a genius.

      I could never get into Doctrow and really I read his stuff because he offered them as free downloads on his website.

  2. I enjoyed Little Brother – I read it as a free ebook when Doctorow first released it – and I’m trying to hunt down a copy with that cool illustration of the kid with the slingshot & guy with the CCTV Camera head.

    Timeshredder, your points on the characterization are spot on, and I think they apply to most of Doctorow’s longer work (especially the Mary-Sue-ishness of so many of his characters). It’s definitely the weak spot in his writing.

    • It’s an odd book to review. Certain elements (like character) really didn’t work consistently well, and suggest a lower score than it received (if “scoring” literature is meaningful). However, I like the idea of a book like this one, aimed at younger readers, and I know I would have liked this book a lot more if I had been thirteen.

      I think it will date quickly, however.

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