Neil Gaiman mentioned a book on his blog several months ago, so I picked it up and did eventually (after abandoning it on my "reading shelf" for a few months) get around to reading it.
Neil's praise is a little stronger than mine and his age-target seems a little low for me, but maybe that's just because I was a dumb thirteen year-old.
But I'd recommend Little Brother over pretty much any book I've read this year, and I'd want to get it into the hands of as many smart thirteen-year-olds, male and female, as I can.
Because I think it'll change lives. Because some kids, maybe just a few, won't be the same after they've read it. Maybe they'll change politically, maybe technologically. Maybe it'll just be the first book they loved or that spoke to their inner geek. Maybe they'll want to argue about it and disagree with it. Maybe they'll want to open their computer and see what's in there. I don't know. It made me want to be 13 again right now and reading it for the first time, and then go out and make the world better or stranger or odder. It's a wonderful, important book, in a way that renders its flaws pretty much meaningless.
Little Brother is a "young adult" novel and it might exaggerate/sensationalize a little here and there, but it's frighteningly realistic and does make a good case about the dangers of sidestepping the US Constitution in the name of national security (or for any other reason). And with the US and state Constitutions being bent and stretched every which way recently, it's really not much of a stretch.
This scene, the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack in San Francisco that actually occurred a few miles from these events, is frightening in its completely accurate portrayal of most people being no better than frightened sheep when push comes to shove.
"Don't mace him!" I shouted over the din. "You'll get us all, too."
At the mention of the word mace, the guy looked scared and kind of melted back, though the crowd kept him moving forward. Up ahead, I saw someone, a middle-aged lady in a hippie dress, falter and fall. She screamed as she went down, and I saw her thrashing to get up, but she couldn't, the crowd's pressure was too strong. As I neared her, I bent to help her up, and was nearly knocked over her. I ended up stepping on her stomach as the crowd pushed me past her, but by then I don't think she was feeling anything.
I was as scared as I'd ever been. There was screaming everywhere now, and more bodies on the floor, and the press from behind was as relentless as a bulldozer. It was all I could do to keep on my feet.
We were in the open concourse where the turnstiles were. It was hardly any better here--the enclosed space sent the voices around us echoing back in a roar that made my head ring, and the smell and feeling of all those bodies made me feel a claustrophobia I'd never known I was prone to.
People were still cramming down the stairs, and more were squeezing past the turnstiles and down the escalators onto the platforms, but it was clear to me that this wasn't going to have a happy ending.
How many times has this same scene played out whenever massed groups of people are swarming for an exit in the face of some danger? As people begin to feel more desperate and pockets of mayhem begin popping up (especially in large, urban areas), you better believe that scenes like this will be less like fiction and more like watching the six o'clock news. Diminishing food supplies, shrinking incomes, widespread unemployment and soaring inflation could be the match to the tinder.
One major annoyance I had with the book was the author's worship of the liberal San Francisco mindset and the literature that helped spawn it. Specifically, Jack Kerouac's On the Road. I've already voiced my distaste for his brand of hippie nonsense, so I won't harp on it again.
I've always loved just learning stuff for its own sake. just to be smarter about the world around me. I could do that just by walking around the city. I decided I'd do an English paper about the Beats first. City Lights books had a great library in an upstairs room where Allen Ginsberg and his buddies had created their radical druggy poetry. The one we'd read in English class was Howl and I would never forget the opening lines, they gave me shivers down my back:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed
by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at
dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient
heavenly connection to the starry dynamo
in the machinery of night. . . .
I liked the way he ran those words all together, "starving hysterical naked." I knew how that felt. And "best minds of my generation" made me think hard, too. It made me remember the park and the police and the gas falling. They busted Ginsberg for obscenity over Howl--all about a line about gay sex that would hardly have caused us to blink an eye today. It made me happy somehow, knowing that we'd made some progress. That things had been even more restrictive than this before.
I lost myself in the library, reading these beautiful old editions of the books. I got lost in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, a novel I'd been meaning to read for a long time, and a clerk who came up to check on me nodded approvingly and found me a cheap edition that he sold me for six bucks.
I walked into Chinatown and had dim sum buns and noodles with hot sauce that I had previously considered to be pretty hot, but which would never seem anything like hot ever again, now that I'd had an Ange special.
As the day wore on toward afternoon, I got on the BART and switched to a San Mateo bridge shuttle bus to bring around to the East Bay. I read my copy of On the Road and the scenery whizzing past. On the Road is a semiautobiograpical novel about Jack Kerouac, a druggy, hard-drinking writer who goes hitchhiking around America, working crummy jobs, howling through the streets at night, meeting people and parting ways. Hipsters, sad-faced hobos, con men, muggers, scumbags and angels. There's not really a plot--Kerouac supposedly wrote it in three weeks on a long roll of paper, stoned out of his mind--only a bunch of amazing things, one thing happening after another. He makes friends with self-destructing people like Dean Moriarty, who get him involved in weird schemes that never really work out, but still it works out, if you know what I mean.
There was a rhythm to the words, it was luscious, I could hear it being read aloud in my head. It made me want to lie down in the bed of a pickup truck and wake up in a dusty little town somewhere in the central valley on the way to LA, one of those places with a gas station and a diner, and just walk out into the fields and meet people and see stuff and do stuff.
Bah! Hippie nonsense.
Here's one last passage from the book to explain the title (sort of an "anti-Orwell Big Brother").
But the next morning at breakfast they were both glued to the radio.
"Abuses of Authority--it's the latest craze on San Francisco's notorious Xnet, and it's captured the world's attention. Called A-oh-A, the movement is composed of "Little Brothers" who watch back against the Department of Homeland Security's antiterrorism measures, documenting the failures and excesses. The rallying cry is a popular viral video clip of a General Claude Geist, a retired three-star general, being tackled by DHS officers on the sidewalk in front of City Hall. Geist hasn't made a statement on the incident, but commentary from young people who are upset with their own treatment has been fast and furious.
"Most notable has been the global attention the movement has received. Stills from the Geist video have appeared on the front pages of newspapers in Korea, Great Britain, Germany, Egypt and Japan, and broadcasters around the world have aired the clip on prime-time news. The issue came to a head last night, when the British Broadcasting Corporation's National News Evening program ran a special report on the fact that no American broadcaster or news agency has covered this story. Commenters on the BBC's website noted that BBC America's version of the news did not carry the report."
They brought on a couple of interviews: British media watchdogs, a Swedish Pirate Party kid who made jeering remarks about America's corrupt press, a retired American newscaster living in Tokyo; then they aired a short clip from Al-Jazeera, comparing the American press record and the record of the national news media in Syria.
Little Brother may not be "high literature," but it is definitely worth reading on many levels. Even if you are more right-leaning than the author and way too old to be in the target demographic for "young adult" fiction.