Books: Little Brother

>> Tuesday, December 9, 2008

I finished Cory Doctorow's Little Brother last night, and it, like another book I read this year--M.T. Anderson's Feed--had a tremendous impact on my way of thinking about the world. And like Feed, I thought it was a pretty darn entertaining book as well.

I want to talk a little about Little Brother--you could call this a review, of sorts, or perhaps better put, a "reaction"--but oddly that discussion begins with an almost ten-year-old movie called The Mighty Quinn. That's at least the first place my thoughts went this morning in the shower when I woke up thinking about Little Brother.

Perhaps you don't remember The Mighty Quinn. That's certainly understandable. Besides being a late Eighties vehicle for then relatively unknown star Denzel Washington, it was notable mostly for its infectious reggae remake of Bob Dylan's "Quinn the Eskimo"--which itself had previously been remade and made famous by Manfred Mann in 1968 as "Mighty Quinn."

The movie was about a Jamaican police chief named Quinn (Washington) whose childhood friend and ne'er-do-well Maubee (Robert Townsend) is accused of murdering a millionaire hotel owner and stealing oodles of money from him. Even though all evidence points to Maubee (natch), Washington doesn't believe his childhood friend and local legend would go this far, and he sets out to clear his friend's name and get at the truth.

The truth, it turns out, (and I'm about to spoil the movie for you), is that the President of the United States wants to fund an anti-communist revolution in Latin America, but Congress has turned him down. To get around this small problem, the President takes discontinued $10,000 bills from storage in the U.S. Treasury that he thinks won't be missed and sends them to the hotel owner, who was supposed to pass them along to the rebels. But the hotel owner's death--over an unrelated paternity issue--fouls things up, leading to the mess with Maubee and Quinn.

I first watched this movie on Betamax (I kid you not) when I roomed with longtime friend Greg Bunch in college. It was his Betamax, his video, and he had pulled out The Mighty Quinn as part of my ongoing (and up until then, sorely limited) movie education.

"Well?" he said when it was over.

"Well," I said, "the movie was awesome. But I don't believe it."

"Don't believe what?"

"I don't believe that the President of the United States would lie to everyone and do that."

Greg laughed at me. Hard. Derisively. In retrospect, of course, I deserved every bit of it, but at the time it stung--it stung so badly that I remember the entire experience vividly. I was indignant. Why shouldn't I trust the President? Any president? My default setting for politicians was, "they have our best interests at heart, first and foremost, until they prove otherwise." After all, our elected officials had the trust and faith of an entire nation on them. Wouldn't the sheer pressure of that make them do right by us? Sure, there were bad apples like Nixon, but there were bad apples in every walk of life. Why assume all the apples are bad because one was spoiled? It would be another eight years before The West Wing hit television, but in my head in 1991 the White House was already--and always--filled with similarly earnest, right-minded politicians, no matter what their party affiliation.

Looking back on myself then as a 19-year-old college sophomore, I want to find any kind of excuse for what a numbskull I was. But the truth of the matter is that I was a numbskull, and blissfully so. I was so green I could have sprouted buds. The fact was, all my life until then I had never had cause to question anything. I had a relatively happy childhood, did well in school, achieved a kind of easy, middling popularity, had loyal, supportive friends, had decent success with girls, and had never known poverty, hunger, oppression, or any serious trouble of any kind. I was a reasonably smart fellow with a top-notch education, but I was as naive as they come.

And thus, starting with The Mighty Quinn, began my real education. It has been the work of the last eighteen years of my life to undo the blind, unskeptical, unquestioning person I had become in the first 19 years of my life. And while it has been a gradual process, with each new revelation or understanding about the realities of the world chipping away at my shell of blithe, willful ignorance, I can safely say that the last eight years of American government hurried my transformation to perfect paranoia and distrust.

And yet, there is a part of me that wishes I were 19 again, blissfully benighted, trusting, and uncynical.

Which is why I was reluctant to read Little Brother. (And you thought I'd forgotten.) I knew what it was about: a group of kids playing hooky from school are in the right place at the wrong time when a 9/11-scale terrorist attack hits their city, and they are detained by the Department of Homeland Security for interrogation. When they emerge abused and blinking into the sunlight a week later, they find themselves in a not-so-brave new world, one where the people of their city have willingly resigned their personal liberties in return for "safety."

I love Cory Doctorow's books. I've read just about all of his adult science fiction novels and short story collections, and those I haven't read I own and have in my teetering To-Be-Read stack. When I heard he was writing a YA novel I was ecstatic and bought it as soon as it came out--but then I sat on it. For a long time. Despite the great reviews. Despite it hitting the bestseller list. Despite my ever-growing dedication to Boing Boing the blog he co-founded and contributes to.

I didn't read it because I knew it was going to be painful. Painful in the way that opening my eyes to the realities of the world has been for the last 18 years, but all condensed into one 365-page tome. Painful like reading M.T. Anderson's Feed and realizing I am that consumer, that unthinking harbinger of doom. This book was going to make me angry, it was going to make me scared, and it was going to make me want to get up off my lazy ass and do something about the world, and I was pretty content to sit by my cozy fire and feel calm, safe, and secure in my own home, thank you very much.

But I read it anyway. And of course I'm glad I did. It's witty, it's romantic, it's smart--oh gods is it smart--and it's entertaining. But it is also, of course, all those things I feared it would be. It had to be. And that's why every kid should read this book right now. It belongs in a semester-long--hell, a year-long--course with Fahreinheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, Brazil, V for Vendetta, and Feed, and if I were still teaching teenagers I would chuck my entire curriculum next year and do it.

I'm not sure I could have handled--or appreciated--this book when I was a teenager. Knowing who I was then, I would have read it the way I read 1984 as a teen--as a cautionary allegory about taking the wrong path, not a prescient commentary on the way the world already is. I would have said, "I like it, but I don't believe it." My eyes weren't open enough then to understand. But not every teenager--thankfully--is as dense as I was then, and this book will speak to many of them. Little Brother is this generation's 1984--it lays bare the ridiculousness of sacrificing liberty for "freedom," and represents a call to action to the world's teenagers to adopt a heathly mistrust of the status quo and to take the future into their own hands.

Let's just hope they're listening.


Unknown December 9, 2008 at 6:45 PM  

Sounds awesome, Alan.

But your forgot the 1910 Fruitgum Company's cover of "Mighty Quinn" also from '68!

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