Don’t be fooled by the fact that this book is marketed as a so-called juvenile novel. It reads great for adults too. It is a frightening and important book about what happens when people lose their freedom in the name of security. It was published in 2008, which means that Doctorow wrote it back in the George W. Bush era, when the government was indeed attempting to take liberties from citizens under the smokescreen of national security. As this book brings out, you can’t run roughshod over people without compromising the very values you are attempting to protect.
The title comes from the autocratic Big Brother of George Orwell’s novel 1984. As I remember, Orwell insisted that he was not writing science fiction but only casting light on things as they then were, and this novel does somewhat the same. Although it posits a situation that hasn’t happened yet, the terrorist bombing of the Oakland Bay bridge by extremists, the scary police state that San Francisco becomes in the aftermath of the bombings is not that much different from the way things are now – or were, at least, back in 2008. Perhaps things have somewhat improved; I’m not sure.
I don’t want to get too much into contemporary politics here; I want to talk about the merits of the book. You can read it for yourself and form your own opinions. What happens in the story is, after the bombings personnel from the Department of Homeland Security go nuts and start arresting everyone nearby, including a bunch of high school kids who are out following a role-playing game. They throw them in prison, torture them physically and mentally, and finally release them. These kids, especially the first person narrator, are hackers, though, and vow to take down the security forces gone rampant who have become more dangerous to the freedom of citizens than the terrorists. So they establish a secret bug-free internet network where they can plan and hatch plots of civil disobedience.
The rudiments of the technology the hackers use are all well explained, and the characters are clearly delineated. There is plenty of derring-do and dangerous situations before… Well, no need to give away the ending. This book is worth reading for yourself, and what’s more, it’s an important book to read. It held my interest throughout, though I found that it dragged a bit in the middle. I feel that some trimming in the midsection would have served it well; a shorter, tighter book would have made all the points and been better-paced. Overall, though, I would say that if you find yourself slowing down a bit in the middle, persevere, because the ultimate payoff is worth it.
As I mentioned before, categorizing this book as a juvenile just because it has teenage characters is a mistake, as it may prevent some adults from reading it who could definitely benefit from what it has to say. Thus it often is with arbitrary designations in the book world – they often limit rather than expand a book’s distribution. I suppose categories are useful when you’re looking for a book in a particular genre, but pigeonholing a book solely because of the age of the main characters doesn’t make sense to me.