The physical component of today’s clue was a set of GPS coordinates — there were coordinates for all the major cities where Harajuku Fun Madness was played — where we’d find a WiFi access-point’s signal. That signal was being deliberately jammed by another, nearby WiFi point that was hidden so that it couldn’t be spotted by conventional wifinders, little keyfobs that told you when you were within range of someone’s open access-point, which you could use for free.
One: I know written English handles repetition better than my first language, but the double “coordinates”, double “signal” and, to a lesser extent, double “access-point” are really jarring to me.
Two, don’t “wifinders” kind of speak for themselves? Sci-fi writers (I assume Cory, as a huge nerd, is very familiar with them) often coin a word for a piece of futuristic technology and never actually explain how it works, but rely on the reader to figure it out from context. Unless they’re Frank Fucking Herbert, in which case enjoy half a page’s worth of awkward mumbling about the intricate inner workings of “stillsuits” and “windtraps”. Point being, everything from “wifinders” on seems perfectly redundant to me.
I wonder now if Doctorow thinks Herbert’s books are timeless masterpieces. Probably.
Anyway, the Cory Bunch find the mysterious hidden wifi in some shady back alley, and then —
I took a step backward and ended up standing on someone’s toes. A female voice said “oof” and I spun around, worried that some crack-ho was going to stab me for breaking her heels.
Marcus respects women, y’all.
Remember my meltdown from last time? Let me elaborate on that a bit: it’s not that someone is saying racist and/or misogynist and/or transphobic and/or classist things. If a character casually using horrible slurs, doing racist as fuck things and generally being a privileged piece of shit (or just, y’know, a person living in a misogynistic, transphobic, etc. culture) adds to the story or paints a better picture of them, I’m not gonna hold it against the text. I might not have fun reading it, but I wouldn’t have fun being in one room with such a person either, so yeah.
This is subtly, but importantly, different. Marcus is the narrator and the only interpreter of this world we have: it’s his story, and what he says goes. More than that, he’s quite obviously the author’s Gary Stu: the smartest, bravest, sexiest, best-liked guy in every room he enters, and self-evidently incapable of error. Doctorow is walking a very thin line between having a character be a habitual dick to women, and having the text actively hate women, and you know what? I’m not going to give him the benefit of the doubt in ambiguous cases, because fuck Cory.
Instead, I found myself face to face with another kid my age. She had a shock of bright pink hair and a sharp, rodent-like face, with big sunglasses that were practically air-force goggles. She was dressed in striped tights beneath a black granny dress, with lots of little Japanese decorer toys safety pinned to it — anime characters, old world leaders, emblems from foreign soda-pop.
I see not getting stabbed doesn’t stop you from describing her as nastily as you can, Cory — er, Marcus. I guess we’re supposed to feel contempt for her at this point? That “rodent-like” face bit is especially telling.
Mind you, we still don’t know how Marcus looks. Personally, I imagine him somewhat like this:
Anyway, she and her two friends (they all have anime hair, too, to drive home that they are Bad and Pathetic Anime Fans, not Cool and Hip Anime Fans like Marcus et consortes) are also looking for the Big Clue, and threaten to send the Scooby Crew’s photos to that truancy blog if they don’t step the fuck off right this instant.
Behind me I felt Van start forward. Her all-girls school was notorious for its brawls, and I was pretty sure she was ready to knock this chick’s block off.
Strong Female Character! Strong Female Character! Look at her being all violent and shit!
Okay, I’ll stop now. By itself this is not objectionable, but like I said, no benefit of the doubt will be given, and it’s quite clear to me that the text is trying to hastily and crudely establish Van as being all tough and badass (and pointlessly reckless), probably so it can disempower her and strip her of agency later on.
Then the world changed forever.
Please let it be a tactical nuclear strike that wipes Marcus off the planet. Please.
Ahahaha FUCK I’m the biggest liar, aren’t I. But nevermind that! Back in the saddle again, let’s do this thing!
Back when we left off, we met Van, who is a girl with crazy elaborate braids she researches on the net, and has mastered the ancient and mystical Far Eastern art of looking exactly like every other person of East Asian descent. I feel like it’s important to repeat this: Cory chose to introduce her ethnicity through the crudest racist stereotype I can think of.
I don’t subscribe to the notion that characters are “better” and “more authentic” when their ethnicity, or sexuality, or other politicized factors of their identity, are presented as incidental. I know this is a common belief, and I sort of understand why — I can’t deny the value of reader identification, and the feeling that “this character can do everything THEY (white people, men, whoever) can” is not something I’d lightly dismiss.
My problem is that politicized identities aren’t just funny quirks or patterns of consumption. To pretend that they are is a bizarre denial of material realities that shape our lives. If your setting is some Neverland without heteronormativity, income disparities between ethnic groups and rape culture — sure, I’ll buy it. But Little Brother takes place in almost-but-not-quite present-day USA, and to introduce this sort of pseudo-egalitarianism into a close approximation of the real world is delusional.
I don’t really expect the text to acknowledge and address these problems within three paragraphs of introducing Van. A lecture on melting pots and assimilationism and transformative politics of liberation in the middle of this little scene would probably be even worse than a lecture on why Micro$oft $ucks a$$, if only because there’s no way Cory could pull it off competently. But it’s something that I’m keenly aware of as I’m reading, and I’d like you, Dear Reader, to be aware of it as well.
Jolu saved him from social disgrace by showing up just then, in an oversize leather baseball jacket, sharp sneakers, and a meshback cap advertising our favorite Mexican masked wrestler, El Santo Junior. Jolu is Jose Luis Torrez, the completing member of our foursome. He went to a superstrict Catholic school in the Outer Richmond, so it wasn’t easy for him to get out. But he always did: no one exfiltrated like our Jolu. He liked his jacket because it hung down low — which was pretty stylish in parts of the city — and covered up all his Catholic school crap, which was like a bullseye for nosy jerks with the truancy moblog bookmarked on their phones.
Welp. Catholicism and lucha libre. Forget all of what I just said, Doctorow is not allowed to say a single fucking thing about ethnic difference ever again.
The Cory Gang are off to a place to do a thing, and then this wonderful paragraph happens:
That part of San Francisco is one of the weird bits — you go in through the Hilton’s front entrance and it’s all touristy stuff like the cablecar turnaround and family restaurants. Go through to the other side and you’re in the ‘Loin, where every tracked out transvestite hooker, hardcase pimp, hissing drug dealer and cracked up homeless person in town was concentrated.
shut up shut up shut up fuck you FUCK YOU NOT ANOTHER WORD OUT OF YOU DOCTOROW
I’m adjusting my schedule AGAIN, because:
1. I can, and;
2. Fuck Cory.
I took a little break from this horrible book because I havd vastly more interesting and rewarding real-life things to do, and it turned into four goddamn days. Plus, work is actually picking up a little.
Expect another post tomorrow, and one every other day afterwards. Also, I promise you I won’t go below a post a week, unless I decide to abandon this entire project. Which MIGHT happen, but I’d feel pretty bummed about that for a while, because I’d be robbing you of my reactions to some of the more interesting events later on.
No post today, there probably won’t be one tomorrow. I DON’T OWE YOU ANYTHING.
For reals though, sorry. I’ll try to do two posts on Saturday or something? Maybe? It’s a surprise.
When we left off, secret agent Pronounced Winston sent like a million messages to a bully’s cell phone through a botnet just to make him look the other way. And because this is Cory’s — sorry, Winston’s — story, not only do they manage to get away without a hitch, but the nefarious villain Charles gets caught outside by a teacher and chewed out as our protagonists make their escape. Because Cory — sorry, Winston — has to win every time.
I’m thinking about Darryl’s function in all this. You know how Sancho Pansa is the voice of down-to-earth common sense? Darryl seems kind of like that to me, except in a world where giants are real and Don Quixote has a grenade launcher. His behaviour — worrying about being expelled, not wanting to go along with Pronounced Winston’s schemes — is perfectly reasonable and relatable, but because Winston is so wonderful and all-knowing and perfect, Darryl just ends up looking like a great big dumbass coward.
Which raises the question of why they are even friends at all. Personally, I think it’s because Pronounced Winston needs Darryl for that stupid videogame or ARG or whatever of theirs. The commodification of human relations, the flipside of the intimate and loving relationships that Cory — sorry, Winston — forms with pieces of hardware.
From what we’ve seen so far, I like Darryl. I think he should be the one telling this story. He doesn’t seem to be a gargantuan dick, at least. Plus he’s showed actual human affection to his friend-and-probably-not-sexual-partner with that butt-pat, which is more than I can say for Winston/Marcus; that guy’s just been manipulative and smarmy as hell.
Anyway, they depart to meet up with the other players of their dumb game.
Van spotted us first.
Van, you’ll remember, is the girl Winston was being a creep about, the one Darryl has a crush on. We’ve been told literally nothing else about her, because that is how you introduce a Strong Female Character: the first and most important piece of information is her relations with men.
She was blending in with a group of Korean tourists, which is one of her favorite ways of camouflaging herself when she’s ditching school.
Because Asians all look the same, get it? Jesus fuck—
Ever since the truancy moblog went live, our world is full of nosy shopkeepers and pecksniffs who take it upon themselves to snap our piccies and put them on the net where they can be perused by school administrators.
Who will emerge victorious from the Clash of the Shitty Nouns? It’s looking to be an even match between Moblog and Piccies! Place your bets now!
She came out of the crowd and bounded toward us. Darryl has had a thing for Van since forever, and she’s sweet enough to pretend she doesn’t know it. She gave me a hug and then moved onto Darryl, giving him a quick sisterly kiss on the cheek that made him go red to the tops of his ears.
Thanks for the reminder of what the point of a Strong Female Character is, Cory, I’d almost managed to forget. Also, “sweet enough to pretend she doesn’t know it?” In what kind of fucked-up anime reality does this make even the slightest shred of sense?
I might come back to this next time, actually. The can of worms has been opened: a woman has violated the tranquil peace of the male nerd community, and it’s time to start cataloguing the ways in which Cory — sorry, Marcus — holds her in contempt.
[…] Van is half a head shorter than me, and skinny, with straight black hair that she wears in crazy, elaborate braids that she researches on the net.
I’ve bolded the part where I think your enthusiasm got the better of you, Cory. That clarification is superfluous and breaks the flow of the sentence. Please see me after class.
So, yeah. At the start of every chapter, Doctorow inserts a paragraph plugging a different bookstore. In Chapter 1, it was some sci-fi store in Toronto; here, it’s fucking Amazon.
This is the man who is concerned about “freedom of information”. This is the great champion of privacy and individual rights on the Internet and free expression and several other buzzwords. He writes a story about a courageous teen fighting a violent, hegemonic order of knowledge and power. And in doing so, he freely and willingly puts advertisements within the text of the novel.
How oblivious can a person get?
I mean, even the pissweak left-liberal critic should be keenly aware of the nefarious influence of dominant booksellers, like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, working hand in glove with large publishing houses, on the free dissemination and exchange of ideas. One doesn’t need to be some kind of Marxist to have an understanding of how both readers and authors will find their ideas and expectations shaped by perceived notions of “marketability”, “popularity” or “reasonableness”, which do not emerge spontaneously, but depend on the profit motive of whoever has a controlling stake in the literary markets.
(If you just happened to be a Marxist, you could take this argument in an even more interesting direction, by noting how Doctorow’s endorsement of “free speech”, when not paired with an understanding of the political and economic conditions of “speech”, is historically in line with the liberal tradition, through which the defense of individual negative rights has, in practice, frequently led to an obliteration of these same rights for enormous groups of people, except in the form of highly ritualized and normalized “freedom performances”, like voting. If you were the annoying, pontificating sort of Marxist, you could also point out that, under capitalism, this progression is as paradoxical as it is necessary.
Basically, if you were a Marxist, you would probably be great fun at parties and not at all annoying.)
But nevermind all that. Back to the thrilling story: Marcus and Darryl need to dispose of a library book with a RFID chip (as lovingly explained in another two bloated paragraphs), in case the school tracks them down. Turns out you can just microwave the chip, so they sneak into the teachers’ lounge. Darryl, of course, is the guy who’s freaking out about getting caught and expelled doing all this shady stuff — in other words, a regular person. The super-spy Marcus Yarrow, however, gives no shits.
They manage to fry the chip, but as they try to leave the lounge, they spot an adversary in the hallway!
Charles Walker and I don’t get along. We’re in the same grade, and we’ve known each other as long as I’ve known Darryl, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Charles has always been big for his age, and now that he’s playing football and on the juice, he’s even bigger. He’s got anger management problems I — lost a milk-tooth to him in the third grade — and he’s managed to keep from getting in trouble over them by becoming the most active snitch in school.
Remember, kids: physical activity makes you dull-witted and erodes your morals. Unless it’s pretending to be an elf hunting goblins in the woods.
My actual complaint is that this whole Nerds vs. Jocks thing has been tremendously lazy so far. I’m not expecting a revolutionary deconstruction of the Nerd-Jock binary, but if this is the US, you could at least show (not tell) how school funding is disproportionately allocated to sports teams and competitions instead of other desperately needed resources, like, say, books. This leads to the formation of bizarre sports aristocracies among the students and teachers, while the needs of everyone else are neglected.
Darryl is freaking out again, but the international teen super hacker “Winston” (I refuse to type that out in leetspeak) gives a grand total of zero shits, because check out how awesome he is:
A few seconds later, Charles’s phone spazzed out spectacularly. I’d had tens of thousands of simultaneous random calls and text messages sent to it, causing every chirp and ring it had to go off and keep on going off. The attack was accomplished by means of a botnet, and for that I felt bad, but it was in the service of a good cause.
And then we get another three-paragraph lecture about what a botnet is. God bless you, Cory Fucking Doctorow.
This chapter is dedicated to Amazon.com, the largest Internet bookseller in the world. Amazon is amazing — a ”store” where you can get practically any book ever published (along with practically everything else, from laptops to cheesegraters), where they’ve elevated recommendations to a high art, where they allow customers to directly communicate with each other, where they are constantly inventing new and better ways of connecting books with readers. Amazon has always treated me like gold — the founder, Jeff Bezos, even posted a reader-review for my first novel! — and I shop there like crazy (looking at my spreadsheets, it appears that I buy something from Amazon approximately every six days). Amazon’s in the process of reinventing what it means to be a bookstore in the twenty-first century and I can’t think of a better group of people to be facing down that thorny set of problems.
(proper post later today, just wanted to leave this here because ahahahahaha)
There it was, a new clue. Like all Harajuku Fun Madness clues, it had a physical, online and mental component. The online component was a puzzle you had to solve, one that required you to research the answers to a bunch of obscure questions. This batch included a bunch of questions on the plots in dojinshi — those are comic books drawn by fans of manga, Japanese comics. They can be as big as the official comics that inspire them, but they’re a lot weirder, with crossover storylines and sometimes really silly songs and action. Lots of love stories, of course. Everyone loves to see their favorite toons hook up.
Just in case you thought I was exaggerating about Marcus/Cory compulsively explaining insignificant bullshit. Now we know what a dojinshi is, I guess; I’m sure this is indispensable to the plot and setting in some subtle way that keeps eluding me. It can’t just be bad writing, after all.
Anyway, our hero and Darryl prepare to make their escape — somehow they still haven’t left the school grounds — but then they realize they still have a library book with them. Library books are apparently equipped with some sort of tracking device? They duck into the bathroom, and the chapter ends.
Let’s review what happened: we meet Marcus and Darryl, Marcus gets chewed out by the principal, they resolve to ditch class. That’s it. That’s all.
I think it would be useful at this point to posit some sort of “intended reader” — that is to say, Cory Doctorow’s idea of a teenager. The intended reader enjoys all the lectures about the minutiae of nerd culture, and actually keeps on reading with the expectation that there will be more of them. Worse still, this imaginary, nonexistent person identifies with someone who doesn’t feel the slightest twinge of fear or discomfort when confronting a figure of authority.
Who the fuck is this person? Have you met them? Has anyone?
This is what gets me the most about this chapter. Marcus outstares and outwits the vice-principal without breaking a sweat, and doesn’t even give it a second thought afterwards; he immediately comes up with the idea of skipping class to play a videogame. This is our narrator and our point-of-view character, and I cannot relate to him at all.
One of the creation myths of Nerd Culture states that it comes into being when the social outcasts, the weak and the smart and the sad and the desperate, band together and bond over shared interests.
Is Marcus an outcast, or weak, or desperate?
This kid is practically Rambo, for fuck’s sake. Or William Gates III, if you prefer.
I can see two acceptable readings here. Either this incongruity exposes the myth of the oppressed nerd for the utter sham that it is, a disgusting bid for victim status in order to obscure the very real power and dominance that Marcus has over everyone around him — or else he’s lying to us all the time.
How about this: Marcus didn’t actually play the vice-principal like a fiddle. He went in there shaking and terrified, and broke almost immediately, admitting to every single one of his misdemeanours, giving The Man the names and addresses of all his hacker friends, and promising to keep snitching on them if Benson doesn’t call his parents. And now he’s telling us all sorts of stories about his heroism and grace under pressure and how good he is at reading people, except he’s so nervous about being found out as a liar again that he keeps wandering off into inconsequential, but comfortable topics, like computers and LARPs and manga.
I’m leaning towards the former interpretation, myself. But you have to admit the latter is tempting.
No Cory today because fuck Cory. Updates resume tomorrow.
I wasn’t always into ARGing. I have a dark secret: I used to be a LARPer.
What a way to start a paragraph.
Last time, you’ll recall, Marcus was pestering his bro and probably-not-boyfriend Darryl (I’m still holding out hope for some radical undermining of heteronormativity) about ditching class to play a videogame or something. He ended up agreeing, and what happens next is an interlude about what a LARP is and how it’s better than a pen-and-paper RPG because fuck you, that’s why. Does this interlude serve a purpose within the story? We’ll just have to wait and see.
(Spoiler: it does actually come up later on.)
Immediately after this seemingly pointless lecture about people pretending to be vampires in the woods, our narrator bestows upon us a seemingly pointless lecture about the gait-recognition cameras installed in the school. He fucks with them, you see, because he is a rebel. Again, you can tell that Cory enjoys explaining this sinister surveillance tech to us: he does it comprehensibly and with ease. It’s just all these hu-mon meatbags that he has to write about, with their relationships and interactions and distressingly squishy internal organs, that make it hard for him.
Once outside, he opens up his laptop to check the game’s website — we are treated to a sick burn on Internet Explorer, “Microsoft’s crashware turd” that comes with the school-issue computers, and runs Firefox with TOR. If you think that’s too many brand names and computer terms in one sentence, you’re wrong and stupid, because Marcus doesn’t. And if you were hoping for something of note to happen, well, guess what, here’s another lecture about how TOR’s encryption and routing works.
What I’m feeling right now is the readerly equivalent of that burning sensation right after someone slaps you in the face. Oh, you thought you were reading a novel? Joke’s on you, sucker, here’s ten paragraphs about several arcane aspects of nerd culture that you absolutely must understand because they’re so exciting and important.
It’s not that Cory expects the readers to care about his little world. That’s fine, I can do that. It’s that he dumps all this information on them at once, like the contents of an overflowing chamberpot. I know many texts of nerd culture are guilty of this: Tolkien certainly delighted in telling you every last detail of made-up ancient history, complete with made-up songs in a made-up language.
I’m thinking of how JK Rowling, in another popular series of “children’s books”, doesn’t stoop to this level at all. She doesn’t sit the reader down and explain for 30 pages about how magic works, how it’s divided into seventeen disciplines discovered by the ancient masters in the year 666, as written down in the Eternal Scrolls of Castle McGuffin. Nope. You’re a wizard, Harry, now get your ass to wizard school. Things like flying brooms and magical hats are either intuitive or explained in a way that doesn’t interfere with the pacing, and doesn’t bore you to tears.
Little Brother, as far as I can tell from the general condescension and refusal to challenge the reader, is meant to be a “children’s book”. I wouldn’t even grace it with the euphemistic term “young adult”, because that implies at least some willingness to engage your readers as equals instead of constantly talking down to them. No, Cory — or is it Marcus? they’re starting to blur into each other in my mind — knows better than to hint at things or leave them unexplained for a little bit. If he wants to talk about Internet Explorer, you’re going to have to sit down, shut up and listen.
Tomorrow: something actually happens! We finish our first chapter! I narrowly avoid a bad-prose-induced subarachnoid haemorrhage!