Everyone loves Cory Doctorow’s YA novel of teenage rebellion, Little Brother. And it makes sense that they do because the book is topical: it’s about surveillance, and technology, and what internet freedom means in post-911 America. It’s full of characters who are simultaneously cool and nerdy, so it has broad social appeal. It features minorities represented simply as people. It convincingly reminds us that governments are both corrupt and subject to accountability as defined by the yout’ who will inherit the well-monitored earth. It is a battle cry for personal freedom and fairness. It is a rejection of the culture of fear that the so-called civilized world has been cultivating for the last eleven years.
It is, in all these ways, quite distinct from the other YA I’ve read in recent memory, all of which eschew discussing the “real” world. The science of Little Brother is either current or will be within approximately the next five minutes. There are no externalized personifications of souls. It is neither post-apocalyptic nor does it contain a battle royale. No dead kids revivified into vicious doggy humans with beautiful wavy hair and sharp pointy teeth made for tearing. The boys can’t hear each other think. No space travel. Definitely no swords or magic or wands or pseudo-Latin. It’s set in a real place in a disturbingly recognizable time. It rejects fantasy for gritty reality. Or does it? And is it any good, as a novel? I’ll address the second question first.
No. Hell no. Little Brother alternates charmingly, I’m sure, between three narrative voices or modes: the mind-crushingly instructive and didactic; earnest teenaged righteousness; a good story. Unfortunately, the latter comprises maybe 15% of the book. My thirteen year-old reading self raged at an author who imagined YA readers would need to be told so explicitly how to rebel that the story was dropped repeatedly in favour of long passages that begin with things like “This is how x works, and this is how y works, and this is how these things can be used to show people that kids aren’t going to take it!” My adult reading self was bored and kept putting Little Brother down in favour of novels more deftly handled. My teen self would have refused to finish it at all; my adult self finished it 1) because it was due back at the library; and 2) maybe I will have to ask Doctorow a scathing question at the International Festival of Authors later this month. (But probably I will just gaze adoringly at China Mieville, who is also imperfect but is at least imperfect because he’s brilliant and brave and experimental, and not because he’s sleek and self-satisfied and apparently significantly lacking in self-reflection).
Gawd, this book was so boring. But I finished it about an hour ago and I realized that if Doctorow imagined he’d done something really different here–and something unrelated to capital-f Fantasy in particular–that he was deluding himself. In approximately 90% of the Fantasy I’ve read, YA or otherwise, the young white male (and even if he’s an elf or some such thing, he’s usually a pale one) is the one on the quest and the one who saves the day. There are often minorities of various sorts accompanying or met along the way, but the recognizably Caucasian boy or young man sets everything right. No, not every book; but this is a recognizable trope; it might be the most recognizable trope. Think of the relatively few exceptions–and how badly masses of people reacted to that wretched (but notably brave when it comes to the race of its heroes) arse-swill, The Hunger Games, when the film made it clear that Katniss et al weren’t necessarily a whiter shade of pale! (Actually, I thought the book itself made that clear, but a whole generation of Racist Little Readers missed it, it seems.)
Doctorow’s hero, Marcus, is a middle class white 17-year old. His best friends comprise one other white boy, a Korean girl, and a Latino boy. His girlfriend is of Italian extraction. The novel takes place in San Francisco, a cosmopolitan city by most people’s standards, I’d say. Marcus engages in a series of reckless and brilliant activities in order to bring down the DHS, which essentially takes SF prisoner after it falls victim to a 911-like attack. His Korean friend, Vanessa, refuses to participate. His Latino friend, Jolu, helps at first but gets scared because of racial profiling (alive and well before the city is bombed) and backs off. His girlfriend helps and is very supportive; she is the strong nurturing young lady supporting the leader of Marcus’s internet-based and -fueled resistance. She is maternal and sexy and in no way a stereotype of an Italian woman.
When the DHS’s illegal detention and torture house of cards comes down it does so because 1) Marcus made it happen, 2) Marcus got an important tip from another white boykid named ZEB, who’s escaped the local illegal prison. In the final scene of liberation, Doctorow describes the many minorities being released. But there are no narrative close-ups on any of them. The ONLY victims of the DHS’s tortures who are given significant narrative attention are Marcus, ZEB, and Darryl (his white friend mentioned above), who went missing the day of the bombings. And Darryl, he’s done. He’s totally broken by the time he’s rescued. He has been turned into a terrified child. Which is something that I don’t doubt happens all the time in Gitmo, etc. It’s upsettingly bad, the state he’s in when he’s finally released.
But in Cory Doctorow’s real world, while minorities suffer in greater numbers, the most extremely abused, the most tragically broken people–but also the most bravely resisting–are the teenage white boys. And it’s not just that if bad things happen to non-white boys while they’re imprisoned it remains in the fuzzy undescribed background, there’s nothing about what happens to girls and women in such situations either. Vanessa doesn’t even get to piss her pants the way Marcus does when he gives the jailers some lip!
Marcus is 17. He loses his virginity and a great deal of his innocence in the course of the story. But Doctorow doesn’t seem to have lost his own dangerous innocence; in his real-world fantasy, white male privilege is never questioned, never mind destabilized. The government is not evil because it represents white male privilege; it’s evil because of money and age (as in, not-youth) and because it’s forgotten that it is employed by its people. The rightness of white male power is not questioned at all, in spite of the (barely) acknowledged racism of the whole post-911 “security is more important than rights” deal. Indeed, the nastiest face of this governmental corruption is a female torturer Marcus nicknames Severe Haircut–a de-feminized woman, in other words. Not that there aren’t beefy bad guys but none take as much pleasure in the humiliating of others as SH does; she is the bodily representation of a system out of whack here.
So, it’s not just that the experiences of people much more vulnerable than white boys are either barely imagined or completely beyond Doctorow’s ability to imagine. It’s that the restoration of order is not about questioning the power structure that allowed for such horrid abuses to become so terribly conceivable in the first place; it’s that it’s about getting the right people, the nice and fair people, back running things. Just give young Marcus 30 years and all will be well, my friends. You don’t have to do anything at all but follow his lead.