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Little Brother

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New English Library, London, 1984
(originally published in Britain by Century, 1983)
price: 1.95; 250 pages

dedication: For Mary

The blurb on the back:

He was ten and no trouble.
Possum was his companion, his preoccupation. Absorbed, he sat in his room by the hour, hunched over Possum's keyboard, eyes intent on Possum's display screen. Peripherals - printer, modem unit, disc drive - were marshalled neatly, Possum program discs in their distinctive orange sleeves were ranged in their storage unit.
He was ten and no trouble. Until his parents, worried about his solitary obsession, discovered he was truanting and threatened to confiscate his Possum.
Then he tried to kill himself: a serious attempt that nearly succeeded. Nor was he alone. Horrified, they became aware of other children who had killed themselves, who had attacked their parents with a berserk fury. All had had Possum computers: all had had their Possums taken away from them.
Suddenly Possum was a threat, a malign entity that infiltrated and took over young minds. Suddenly it became very important indeed to find out what lay behind Possum, who were the unknown men who created and programmed the mind invaders.

opening lines:
There is no escaping Route 128 in the electronics settlements that encircle Boston.

In 1981 IBM launched the PC. Over the next couple of years, Hollywood enjoyed a flirtation with computers in movies like Tron and War Games, before losing interest in the subject. And around the same time John McNeill gave us this nice little shocker about the evil that computers could be doing to your children without you knowing. It's a great paranoid scare story set in the new technology parks of New England, bouncing echoes off the Salem witch-trials, and it's not a bad thriller as well. Who's poisoning our children's minds: the forces of capitalism or communism? How closely involved are the FBI? The KGB? And what does any of it have to do with the Tunguska explosion of 1908?

In fact, this book has little in common with either Tron or War Games, but does have some parallels with Halloween III: The Season of the Witch (that was the weird one that didn't fit in with the rest of the series) and, going further back, with the red-baiting 1950s movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And it's none the worse for any of that, of course. There are strands of childhood-ain't-what-it-used-to-be and echoes of possessed-child post-Exorcist horror, but mostly it's a deranged and delightful conspiracy theory that gave me not inconsiderable pleasure.

It also contains this rather nice word game, as an ex-cop reflects on his days in the force:

Years ago, with their legs up at the precinct house, the detectives had played a game: describe a suspect in a single word, so accurately that a smart cop could pick him out of a line-up. And before they even spoke, Sorenson had precisely the word for Hendricks. Dapper. (p.111)

I'm not too sure about cops doing this, but it's an intriguing challenge: try it and have some fun, kids.

John McNeill had earlier written novels about computer crime - The Consultant (1979) - and the Cold War in Spy Game (1980). I haven't read either, I'm afraid. Sorry 'bout that.