I read this book in a single night, which is a pretty good testament to how much I enjoyed it. I won't be the first person to compare Little Brother to George Orwell (Doctorow himself does it, alluding to it in the story by giving his protagonist the handle w1n5t0n and through the title of the book itself), but it's a very apt comparison. Little Brother is 1984 updated to take into account September 11th, the Internet, and the Department of Homeland Security. I'm not saying this book supplants 1984; you should read both.
First, a caveat: Little Brother is polemical in a way that occasionally compromises the story. Sometimes the main character, Marcus, gets a little too caught up in his explanation of how he's accomplishing something. Doctorow wants to educate his readers about modern security measures and ways to thwart them. Nevertheless, I'm giving this book five stars because it still managed to keep me entertained and package all of the emotions I feel when I think about the United States' reaction to terrorism in the past eight years. Little Brother hits you in the heart, because you read it and think, "This is my world" and wonder what will happen next, not in the book, but in reality.
Most of Doctorow's antagonists are fairly stock characters (who even get generic names!) and are two-dimensional set pieces against home his protagonist reverberates. For example, the Chavez High School vice-principal is an uncool blowhard who represents "the Man" and Marcus' desire to thwart the institution. The Man ultimately replaces the teacher who sympathizes with Marcus' freedom-of-speech ethics, of course, the first step to turning education into indoctrination. Doctorow's conflicts are far from organic. Rather, Little Brother reads more like an action movie where the action scenes have been plotted first and their transitions woven in afterward. Although I'm not convinced it could stand up as a movie, that's how it feels to read the book (not a bad thing). This is not a work of great literature, and although Doctorow is an entertaining writer, he's not a perfect one by any means.
What he is, however, is a good storyteller. He makes you feel. Oh, and he uses phrases like "teh suck" in the narration, which raises his cool quotient by a considerable amount.
The brilliance of Little Brother is that it's science fiction, but it's not set in the future. This is happening here, now--much like in Heroes, only without the bad acting and horrible storylines. And for the most part, I think that the situations Doctorow depicts are fairly plausible. In between his thinly-veiled lectures and arguments about freedom of speech and the effects of terrorism on a free society, Doctorow shows us how the government's attempts to catch terrorists are ultimately helping terrorists by sowing fear and hindering true investigation.
Above all, he emphasizes how the government can use technology not just to track us, but to profile us and our habits. Imagine a world where you're investigated not because you do something illegal but because your movements just happen to be "abnormal" compared to your past few months of activity. This isn't Luddite fear-mongering either; Doctorow's addressing real concerns about the intrusive nature of new-old technologies like RFID. These aren't issues that affect only the military or upper class white-collar workers or secret agents; these issues affect everyone, rich or poor, desk or factory, government or private sector. And they affect us here, now, today--not tomorrow. Doctorow is clearly on one side of this issue, but even if you eventual come to stand on the opposite side, at least you'll be choosing a side. If you remain apathetic, then you will have no voice in this silent revolution. And if you have no voice, how can you really call yourself free?
Oh dear, my review appears to have turned polemical as well. I can't help it, I suppose. Little Brother made me passionate; it's moved me in the way that only a good book can, and that's why I'm giving it five stars.