Posts tagged ‘terrorists’

Little Brother

Little Brother.jpgTitle: Little Brother
Author: Cory Doctorow
Narrator: Kirby Heyborne
ISBN: 9780307711540 (audiobook), 9780765323118 (paperback)
Discs/CDs: 10 CDs, 11 hours 54 minutes
Pages: 382 pages
Publisher/Date: Listening Library, c2008.

I lost it. “Dad! Are you listening to yourself? They’re talking about investigating practically every person in the city of San Francisco!”
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s right. They’ll catch every alimony cheat, every dope dealer, every dirtbag and every terrorist. You just wait. This could be the best thing that ever happened to this country.”
“Tell me you’re joking,” I said. “I beg you. You think that that’s what they intended when they wrote the Constitution? What about the Bill of Rights?”
“The Bill of Rights was written before data-mining,” he said. He was awesomely serene, convinced of his rightness. “The right to freedom of association is fine, but why shouldn’t the cops be allowed to mine your social network to figure out if you’re hanging out with gangbangers and terrorists?”
“Because is’t an invasion of my privacy!” I said.
“What’s the big deal? Would you rather have privacy or terrorists?” (137-138)

Marcus is a computer nerd living in San Francisco. He’s cut out of school early with his friends to pursue a clue as part of an online scavenger hunt, when the impossible happens. A terrorist attack leaves them one man down after the Department of Homeland Security apprehends them and holds them for secret questioning. When Marcus gets out, the city is in a semi-militarized state as the government hunts down the perpetrators. That’s what they claim they are doing, but as their surveillance methods increase, Marcus isn’t the only one who begins to wonder who these people are and what or who they are really collecting and pursuing.

I don’t want to turn this into a rant about technology, surveillance, privacy, and how they intersect all too often these days. However, reading this book gave me the same creepy crawly feeling that Robopocalypse did almost 5 years ago. Written before Robopocalypse, nothing has really changed since Cory Doctorow wrote this a decade ago. The general public still blindly accepts that surveillance is happening, that information about them is being collected about their movements and habits and activities, and nobody questions where that information is going or how it is being used. We grant access to huge quantities of information because companies require it in order to use their services, and now these publicly owned companies have the ability to control that information, including selling it to third parties, analyzing it for their own purposes, and deciding whether or not the authorities can gain access to that stored information.

It’s hard to imagine any of this happening in real life, and that’s Doctorow’s point. It might be hard to imagine, but it could happen, and we have the technology already where it could. Obviously advocating for a more involved and informed society when it comes to technical privacy, the book ends with Marcus advocating in what feels like a public service announcement for “signing up voters and getting them to the polls.” It includes afterwards by a security technologist and the MIT student who hacked the XBox, both of whom encourage readers to evaluate the world. “Trading privacy for security is stupid enough; not getting any actual security in the bargain is even more stupid” says the security technologist Bruce Schneier, while Andrew Huang ends his essay with “Be like M1k3y [Marcus’ screen name in the book]: step out the door and dare to be free.”

As a result of the technical nature of the story, there are huge sections of info dumps, where action is forwarded and details are revealed in professorial paragraphs mimicking a classroom lecture. This means that readers might get more out of it when they read it over listening to it. While the background is necessary to understand the story and appreciated by this reader, I do wish there had been a better way to incorporate it into the narrative. Obviously Marcus, the main character, is going to surround himself with people who can aid in his digital exploits and who are already more knowledgeable than readers about hacking concepts, so explaining it in character to a character wouldn’t ring true to the story. But they do have an opportunity when they finally have to involve a less-tech savvy but no less paranoid character (I won’t reveal who) about two-thirds into the story. And five pages on key-encryption or an even longer passage on Marcus’ history of LARPing, while appreciated, seemed a little wordy.

The story is insular in nature, with the close-up focus of Marcus and his movements and point of view. As a result, we don’t get a detailed feel for any of his classmates, friends, or fellow hackers who aid in his attempted take down of the government overreach. There is a romance, and they do have protected sex off screen which might prevent recommending it to some audiences. In fact, I feel like we get more information and character development from Marcus and his parents then from any of his friends, most of them falling to the sidelines due to objections of Marcus’s activities.

It’s an important book to recommend in these times of digital sharing and oversight, and hopefully one that not only sparked discussion when it was published but will continue to encourage debate and free thinking, along with caution and thorough analysis of the world, both virtual and real.

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Afterworlds

AfterworldsTitle: Afterworlds
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Narrators: Heather Lind and Sheetal Sheth
ISBN: 9781442372467 (audiobook),
CDs/Discs: 12 CDs, 15 hours 16 minutes
Pages: 599 pages
Publisher/Date: Simon Pulse, c2014.
Publication Date: Sept. 23, 2014

“The thing is, I want to defer college for a year.”
“What?” her mother asked. “Why on earth?”
“Because I have responsibilities.” This line had sounded better in her head. “I need to do the rewrites for Afterworlds, and write a sequel.”
“But. . .” Her mother paused, and the elder Patels shared a look.
“Working on books isn’t going to take all your time,” her father said. “You wrote your first one in a month, didn’t you? And that didn’t interfere with your studies.” (15)

This is the story of Darcy Patel, a newly graduated high school student who forgoes college in order to move to New York and focus on her publishing career. This is also the story of Elizabeth, a high school senior and the only survivor of a terrorist attack at an airport that leaves everyone else dead and Lizzie seeing ghosts, including a hunky Hindu god named Yamaraj. Elizabeth is the character in Darcy’s story, written over the course of a month-long writing challenge and then rewritten and revised over the next year. Each girl suffers from distractions of their first romance, life’s interference, and their own insecurities about their ability to handle their situations.

First, the negatives. The two stories are told in alternating chapters, which impedes the flow of each story. Elizabeth, or Lizzie, will be running away from a ghost at the end of one chapter, and then readers are flung back to Darcy’s substantially tamer life. If there were parallels between the plots it might have made more sense, but the transitions are disconcerting and seem arbitrary in nature. In one instance, a plot point is portrayed in Lizzie’s story before Darcy finishes the rewrite of it, which makes it all the more jarring when the subject is broached in Darcy’s because we already know what she decides.

I think this may be the first time that the audiobook quality negatively impacts my enjoyment of the book. Each chapter gets only one track, making the tracks close to 30 minutes long, and quite frequently running onto a second disc. That proves frustrating when you’re listening in your car and reach your destination before the track ends. There are also small clicks in one narrator’s enunciation for Darcy’s parts, which may have been included intentionally to emphasize her accent, but are occasionally distracting.

The parts I enjoyed the most are the exposition on the publishing process and the thought-provoking asides as a result. Darcy’s advance, rewrites, edits, marketing efforts, and fearful expectations are all covered, although we aren’t privy to the actual release of her book. There is a well-quoted portion where Darcy’s friend introduces the Angelina Jolie paradox, which forces your mind to really think about how much suspension of belief we have when reading or watching movies. Darcy is questioned about her appropriation of cultural figures for her novel, and she revisits those thoughts again and again. Darcy’s friend Imogen also reveals that some symbolism in a writer’s work may not be as intentional as you might think, pointing things out that Darcy never realized she was doing. There are beautiful turns of phrases throughout the novel that capture your attention.

“Their bodies fit perfectly like this, two continents pulled apart eons ago but now rejoined.” (264)
“The surface of the snow was frozen into glass. Wind-borne flurries uncoiled across it, the high sun casting halos in them, like gray rainbows.”(428)

But the dialogue in places seems stilted and the characters’ reflections make them seem wise beyond their years, even while you’re waiting for character development to happen. Westerfeld even addresses this, when Darcy realizes that her book characters can be boiled down to a few pithy adjectives. It also strikes me as odd that Darcy, on her own for the first time, receives so little parental supervision or inquisition, especially as she keeps stressing the strictness of her immigrant parents. One bright spot is we refreshingly see a character out of school who is forced to make her own decisions and mistakes about budget, including food and living arrangements, no matter how pie-in-the-sky that life may be after Darcy’s six figure advance is paid out.

Personally, I think Westerfeld should stick with the science fiction/fantasy genres. I’ve raved about his Leviathan trilogy several times on this blog, and this seemed like a disappointing departure from what he does well. However, it’s a “chicken and the egg” thought process, because any complaints about the writing style could be attributed to Westerfeld’s portrayal of Darcy’s inexperienced writing and faults, as when someone falls on the ice and claims they meant to do that to show other people the sidewalk is slippery. Tasha Robinson says it better in her NPR Review:

And Westerfeld has an easy out for any flaws in Lizzie’s side of the book: Darcy is a young, inexperienced author. For instance, her relationship with Yamaraj seems insubstantial and heavily romanticized because it’s being written by an 18-year-old who’s just learning about love herself.

If you’re interested in trying your own hand at the National Novel Writing Month challenge, which takes place in November, try visiting their website. For more fulfilling books with a writing themed plot, try Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

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