Saturday, May 2, 2009

Helloooooooo, Dystopia!

There are two themes I’ve been noticing as I read my way through the genre of young adult fiction. The first is the time travel theme – young person, whisked backwards through the space-time continuum to find him- or her-self in a familiar(ish) place some time in the past. The problem is to find one’s way home and avoid being burned at the stake/decapitated in some gruesome way/violating the prime directive.

I like those books, even as I suspect that their intent is more didactic than entertaining. What better way, after all, to learn about the middle ages than by sending back a fictional character to liven up all that dry old history by way of the personal narrative? I imagine that even Canadian history could be made interesting by a method like that. (I’ve always wondered how a writer could work the opposite story – girl in middle ages moves forward through time – and make it compelling and real. I’m not sure it can be done.)

The other theme I’ve noticed lately is the dystopia. Young person, either way far in the future or only a little bit, living in a restrictive society. Fahrenheit 451, although not really a YA novel, qualifies. So does 1984. Young person in future restrictive society must rely on smarts to overthrow the status quo and return Freedom to the Masses.

I can see the appeal. Kids, after all, have almost no agency. They even have to ask to go to the bathroom in school, and sometimes (often if the teacher is me and it’s reading day and you’ve just had a break) the teacher says no. They have no money, no freedom, no ability to choose for themselves what they will do and when they will do it. If they do choose for themselves (by skipping school, for example) there are frequently some nasty consequences. As they get older, teenagers do start to get more power for themselves, but I think they still often feel trapped. (I remember having a shouting argument with my father in the kitchen over being allowed to go somewhere with my friends, in which I screamed “I’m fifteen years old!” and he screamed back “That’s my point!”)

Which brings me to the latest book (sorry, I have totally lost count of what number this is), Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

If you’ve never programmed a computer, you should. There’s nothing like it in the whole world. When you program a computer, it does exactly what you tell it to do. It’s like designing a machine – any machine, like a car, like a faucet, like a gas hinge for a door – using math and instructions. It’s awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe.

A computer is the most complicated machine you’ll ever use. It’s made of billions of microminiaturized transistors that can be configured to run any program you can imagine. But when you sit down at the keyboard and write a line of code, those transistors do what you tell them to.

Most of us will never build a car. Pretty much none of us will ever create an aviation system. Design a building. Lay out a city.

Those are complicated machines, those things, and they’re off-limits to the likes of you and me. But a computer is like, ten times more complicated, and it will dance to any tune you play. You can learn to write simple code in an afternoon. Start with a language like Python, which was written to give nonprogrammers an easier way to make the machine dance to their tune. Even if you only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it. Computers can control you or they can lighten your work – if you want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code.

We wrote a lot of code that night.

They story’s about this dystopian kid, Marcus, who is out skipping school with some friends in San Francisco one afternoon to play a game (one of those real ones where you run around the city finding clues given via website – sounds like fun). While Marcus and his friends are out, San Francisco is attacked by terrorists. The kids are loaded up in white vans, held and interrogated for days by officers of the Department of Homeland Security. When Marcus is released, he realizes a few things. He knows that he is being watched, and that he needs to work in completely secret ways in order to keep the DHS from eroding still more freedoms, and from taking him back into custody, which will probably mean his death.

It’s a really American book, the kind that says “ripped from the headlines”. It’s a credit to Doctorow’s writing that the “Let Freedom Ring” business doesn’t sound preachy, and that the technical stuff (while still mostly Greek to me) didn’t get in the way of the story.

Speaking of the story, I have to confess. Sometimes, when I’m a little bored with a book (what? It happens) I flip forward and read bits towards the end.

I didn’t do this even once with this book. I was dying to know what was going to happen to Marcus, but I didn’t look forward to find out. Can there be a better recommendation? Oh, that and that it has made me want to write code for my computer – this from a thirty-odd knitting small town mother and English teacher who failed remedial math twice.

That’s what good books do. They take you to a place where you can imagine doing something that you know, for absolute certain, that you would hate and have no aptitude for and that would make you want to chew your own head off out of sheer frustration. But the guy writing the book has been so convincing that you finish reading, then you go boot up your MacBook so you can check out some of the links in the afterword, and you think… I could totally write code, man.

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