Taking place around the same distance of time since the events of Little Brother as the publishing of Little Brother, Marcus, half hacker half ex-hacker, is now in his adult years and people have not necessarily forgotten the actions he did after the bombing of the Bay Bridge, but he’s now kind of off the radar. He ends up attending a yearly event in Nevada called Burning Man, a sort of invention convention and Comic-con in the middle of the desert. He was hoping to show off a 3D printer he made from dumpster-dived parts but the thing wouldn’t even turn on. At least he has his fancy coldbrew coffee to show off. Then two old friends arrive and give Marcus a strange USB, around the same time old friend number three, which is slang (in this case) for mortal enemy Marcus gets a whiff of. It’s then soon revealed there may be a hostage situation, but meanwhile, Marcus and the rest of his family are struggling for money and cutting back on everything. San Francisco’s economy crashed, leaving his mom and dad out of work and Marcus had to drop out of college due to being too expensive. But soon he gets a job that teeters on the edge constantly, with his nagging conflict about doing what’s right and doing what’s needed for him.
I called Little Brother the best techno-geek book I’d ever read, and I don’t regret that statement. Octorow continues his descriptive chants of how things work instead of just how to make them work. An example of this is explaining how the energy is transferred in a factory line, not just where the on-and-off buttons are. People could learn a lot from Doctorow, and whether he’s talking about drones or website coding or encryptions, he always knows what he’s saying and how to say it. On those merits, this is a pretty good book.
The main reason I actually disliked it enough to give it a thumbs-down rating is yes, slightly compared to the first book, and its decisions to try the different approach it chose. Trying a different storytelling strategy, like inserting a new narrator alongside the old one, or having a different protagonist altogether, or turning a thriller series into more of a drama for one or two books isn’t always bad, but when you loved the predecessor, it’s risky. Marcus is now more concerned about a lot of things, and I didn’t hate this fact. It’s kind of realistic, when after being subjected to waterboarding and then rejections at every turn for all your hard work, and how far corporations are willing to go to save their delicate butts, you’d turn a bit from someone happy and excited to hack into the corporation’s database to being a little more scared of your next steps. Some may even call that growing up. The problem is the last book fully embraced Marcus’ rebellious nature and even more embraced the hands-on overtaking of the pack. There was a main antagonist face to think about and a threat from her, and while this antagonist is technically back, there isn’t enough to get personally fired up about. We find out about things, unspeakable things she has done, but the storyline makes it told rather than shown to us, and to Marcus. It’s just not as involving.
The characters are still terrific, including some new ones, like a pretty trusting and trustworthy politician named Joe, and Liam, a big fan of Marcus’ previous identity. Van, Darryl, Jolu and especially Ange are all present, and they all have supportive but differing views on how to do everything. And there are speeches and protests that are inspiring, even if they lack the original bite and having a specific problem to get completely invested in rebelling against.
I was still very close to recommending this book. It has some great ideas, especially with getting inside a now-tormented mind and sorting through files of important scattered junk. The ending decision, however, was one of those times where the author changes your expectations in hopes of making a more memorable ending. Something unexpected tends to be more memorable than otherwise. But it also leaves out so much, asking us to just accept the minimum positive information we get and have hope things will get better as the characters keep fighting in their own ways. This is all fine, but feels too mainstream after the enormous originality, adventure and sonic pace of the first installment. I thought the universe of Little Brother was supposed to be more daring than this.
Also, last but not least, I got this book from the library, and some guy wrote a very scathing note in it for some reason. Odd.