Re-Post — Review: Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother

This is one of several reviews essays that I’m re-posting from my personal blog, since they are directly of interest to the mission of 21st Century Geeks.

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Internet-ly famous blogger/writer/digital culture activist Cory Doctorow’s first YA novel Little Brother posits a near future San Francisco that suffers a terrorist attack, leading to a mega DHS crackdown. Our protagonist is Marcus aka W1n5t0n, who is an ex-LARPer turned computer geek and Alternate Reality Gamer. Marcus is detained by the DHS and treated as an enemy combatant, and then declares war on the DHS after being released. In interviews and podcasts, Doctorow has explicitly stated that the book is intended to be pedagogical, with anti-surveilance/DHS techniques, technologies, and ideas spread liberally throughout the book, as well as general techie life-hacks. These educational asides are both a strength and a weakness. Marcus’ voice blends with Doctorow’s own in those explanatory passages, but they usually fall on the near side of being trying. The geeky romance subplot is solid, and fairly adorable.

The world of Little Brother is a few years ahead of our own, but it’s easy to imagine every single thing in the novel coming to pass, right down to the DHS turning a post-terrorist-attack city into a police state, surveilance and profiling gone mad to the point where our own government causes us more terror than faceless nameless terrorists from Otherplacia. I think some people already live in Doctorow’s future, and more are going all the time. There’s a cultural current in the USA (and to a lesser extent in some other Western/Northern developed coutnries) which Doctorow is pointing out. It’s part warning and part polemic rallying cry. Freedom of information as well as of speech.

One of the taglines of the novel is ‘Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25’ — a modification of the older ‘Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30’ from the Vietnam era. Well, I’m 25. The novel is in some ways a rallying cry to Generation Y/the Millenials, a group which most generation dileniations would count me as a part. I grew up with computers in the house, and I can simultaneously remember getting a computer and not really remember not having one. Generation Y is also sometimes called the 9/11 generation — I was a freshman in college when the towers went down, and all of the years of my legal adulthood thusfar have been in W’s America. Little Brother is about being young enough to still have fire under your ass, about being idealistic enough to stick it to a corrupt system and arrogant enough to think that you can personally do something about it.

I loved it, but I don’t think the book was really written for me. There’s a lot of stuff about personal rights and privacy that I already knew, but a fifteen year old nascent geek might not. I think that Little Brother will be the kind of novel that will be the right story at the right time for a great many young people, the exact thing that’s needed to cast back the curtains, to shine a light on the ugly truth behind the USA’s desire to ‘protect’ us.

Balancing our needs for Individual Rights (Privacy, etc.) vs. Security is a question we’re going to have to keep asking ourselves this century, as technology develops at a breakneck pace and international stresses make the rapidly-shrinking and vanishing resource world seem like tight quarters. I won’t be surprised if it gets banned in a number of districts, if it’s the kind of book that teachers risk their jobs by trying to get it onto the curriculum. I intend to teach it when I can, as long as it stays relevant. Maybe if we’re lucky, by the time I could teach it, I won’t need to. Sadly I don’t think that’s likely.

So go read it. Learn how to hack your computer and your life. Then pass the book on to a young person and see what happens.

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