Volume 27, Number 1, Fall 2008

Little Brother

By Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2008
Reviewed by Max Jahr

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
—Benjamin Franklin, 1775

The above quote has been paraphrased and quoted in a variety of forms for over 230 years. It defines our current age, especially post 9/11 when the conservatives who had been slumming with the “radicals” splintered the libertarian movement, sacrificing the idea of liberty to the god of war. To those who remain embittered and enraged by the casual dismissal of liberty evinced by various minions of the state and its fellow travelers, Cory Doctorow’s young adult novel, Little Brother, raises high a rallying cry for liberty. Little Brother ripples and shakes with justified anger. The books crawls under the reader’s skin on the same level as reading true life tales of innocent lives murdered and betrayed by callous and indifferent wielders of state power.

Actual stories in newspaper articles tend to be shunted aside as unreal, removed, faked. Strangely enough, reading about them in a work of fiction creates the opposite effect, making them more real. I imagine many people have felt the agony and pain of Winston Smith during his brief awakening and ultimate terror in Room 101, the most feared room in the Ministry of Love. Humans feel strong empathy for fictional characters in pain; this is the essence of catharsis, the notion of a cleansing release through powerful drama.

It’s no coincidence that I bring up the protagonist of George Orwell’s novel, 1984, perhaps the most famous fictional warning of absolute statism ever written. Marcus Yallow, the high school age protagonist in Little Brother, uses Winston Smith’s name as his handle, although in the hacker style: w1n5t0n. Even the title alludes to 1984, inverting its very famous concept of Big Brother.

From the opening line Doctorow creates a frisson of rebellion.

“I’m a senior at Cesar Chavez high school in San Francisco’s sunny Mission district, and that makes me one of the most surveilled people in the world.”
The public education system, unwilling or unable to educate, often goes for that which it can manage: control. In Doctorow’s fictional school, like so many real schools in America, metal detectors and closed circuit cameras spy on virtually every nano-second of students’ lives while in school. In some cases the intrusiveness extends beyond school. From spyware on their computers, to software that identifies a person by their face or way they walk, there are no boundaries to the scope of this desire for control. For kids are unpredictable, and therefore dangerous.

Marcus is a typical 17-year-old kid, disdainful of clueless authority figures, he is technical savvy, smart, and obsessed with various subcultures where imagination and the real world mingle in ways incomprehensible to outsiders. When he cuts classes with some friends one day to participate in an Alternate Reality Game, where people locate things in real life that are related to an online game, he discovers there are worse things out there than assistant principals bent on knowing every step you make. Such as the Department of Homeland Security.

As Marcus and his three friends range through the streets of San Francisco scavenging for the latest clue in their game, a bomb goes off downtown. In the ensuing confusion, Marcus’s best friend, Daryl, is stabbed. When they try to flag down someone to take Daryl to the hospital, soldiers from DHS swoop down, shut down the city, and arrest Marcus and his friends. The kids are subjected to real and psychological torture to admit their role in the bombing. After surrendering passwords and meekly submitting to the harsh interrogators, they are all released. All except Daryl. And when they try to find out what happened, they are told things can get worse for them unless they drop it.

But Marcus refuses to drop it, and after initial moments of despair, he decides to go up against the entire Homeland Security in San Francisco. He refuses to subject himself to their absolute and arbitrary control. He also is driven not just by outrage and revenge, but also to locate Daryl and get him back.

To this end, Marcus will employ every aspect of his hacker knowledge. He essentially creates an underground network, secure from government control (at least before it can be infiltrated). He conceives of small cells that carry out subversive hacks of the government network. Ironically, their intent to wreck havoc with government RFID tracking devices, human behavior software, and other methods of crowd and thought control backfires. This “terrorist” activity serves merely as an excuse by the government for more money, more control.

Using gaming consoles and modified versions of the Linux OS, Marcus quickly builds a virtual and real following, all equally outraged at how a government agency can assume control of an entire city under the pretense that a lethal bombing requires every citizen to give up freedom of movement and thought.

Little Brother contains thematic elements of science fiction from a near dystopian future, to an emphasis on high tech. The computer lingo and hacker attitude mirrors the cyberpunk novels of the late 1980s/early 1990s, but with a far better understanding of the internet. Rather than the virtual reality of the web as imagined a generation ago, Doctorow sees the internet as a method of communication, not a 3-D play world or stylized representation of our fantasies. Interspersed amid the events of the novel are actual applications of software and low-tech means to subvert spyware employed by any government. Marcus is not a bad person. He doesn’t try to extract steal, or bring down networks. He wants to live a normal life, find his friend, and not have to justify every action and instant of his life to thugs who see independence simply as intent to commit evil acts.

Doctorow writes with a lucid and easy style. Though considered a “young adult” novel, this book is challenging, inventive, intelligent, and angry. The rage is justified and intense, and that intensity reached through the covers and into my soul. I literally picked up the book and could not set it down until the last page. The characters are gripping and real, although some conversations seem lifted from bad movies, and the ending seemed like a let-down of sorts.

Little Brother eloquently makes the case against the excessive government control that seems so de rigueur these days. We are fighting a war, we hear. We must grow up and set aside our childish notions of liberty, all for the safety and future of the free world. The few who oppose such ideas are ridiculed; they can expect nothing but swift retribution and violence against them and their loved ones. Against such fierce conservative thought, the idea of individual liberty seems fragile and weak, clearly on the defensive. Doctorow’s novel challenges the notion that you must submit to the security needs of society. Such excessive control fails to achieve anything but control. Little Brother is entertaining and thought-provoking, a daring work of fiction vital in any age, and especially this one.

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