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Book Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

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With Little Brother, Cory Doctorow has written his best book yet. It's marketed to teens and features a teen protagonist, but should appeal to a much wider audience. In fact, it should be required reading for every American.

Marcus is a 17-year-old student who uses the online moniker w1n5t0n (pronounced Winston). He's technically savvy, and lives in a San Francisco only slightly different from our own, with high school security only slightly more stringent than our own. All of that changes when Marcus and his friends are picked up blocks away from a major terror attack, during school hours, minutes after the explosions.

Now the world changes. Everything that happened in some far off places shortly after 9/11 now happens in San Francisco. Since San Francisco is also ground zero for protest movements of the past, the conflict is natural and inevitable. Faced with a powerful "big brother," can technology help "little brother" fight back?

Much of the fun of the book is in how Marcus and his friends overcome the obstacles that follow the initial attack: evading increased surveillance, exploring private communications, and trying to prove their innocence in a city where the new presumption seems to be "guilty unless proven innocent."

I found a few parts slightly unrealistic, perhaps because I'm not by nature an anti-establishment liberal, as Doctorow is. It seems he couldn't understand how some of his antagonists could act or think as they do, and so he painted them as unreasoning or simple-minded, or took cheap shots. In several cases, perhaps for dramatic effect or perhaps because he cannot find any sympathy for the characters, Doctorow attributes actions and statements to characters (like a classmate, or the Karl Rove character, Kurt Rooney) that seem very implausible or even out of character. Put simply, Doctorow delivers impeccable protagonists, but shallow antagonists.

Still, even though I'm not a teen, and not very liberal, I was able to do what I think Doctorow could not: I saw myself in Marcus' shoes, and rooted for him against the Department of Homeland Security. As Marcus says, "they only get away with it because the normals feel smug compared to the abnormals." As long as we can think that those who are being targeted or mistreated are "them," we feel little sympathy. "They" might deserve it, after all. (Perhaps that's the problem with Doctorow and his antagonists!) What happens when the inconvenienced or targeted becomes "us" instead of "them?" How much inconvenience will we really tolerate before we decide that we're not being made any more secure by surveillance? How much infringement of the Bill of Rights does it take before we say, "Enough?"

Those responsible for providing security would be much happier, with much easier jobs, if everybody was required to justify every step outside their house, every purchase, and every relationship, but at that point those very people are doing as much damage as terror attacks themselves. On the other hand, things are rarely, if ever, quite as bad as some civil libertarians suggest, but part of the reason they're not is due to the work of those same civil libertarians to shine light into dark places. In other words, even exaggerations about abuses of power are helpful in keeping abuses of power in check. We're as free as we are today thanks to many people who saw bogeymen behind every tree, and Little Brother uses a high school social studies classroom setting to highlight some of these. Never quite preachy, Doctorow does an excellent job in describing the protest movement of the sixties and its value to us today. He also recognizes that even the dystopian reality he describes isn't the worst America has seen.

Little Brother contains simple descriptions of some complex technical issues, like public-key encryption and cryptography. You don't need to be a programmer — or even a geek — to enjoy the book, but it might help to know one. Doctorow gets everything just right, from the technical details of existing technologies (like TOR and key-signing) to the feel of the technologies that don't actually exist yet (like Paranoid Linux and XNet), but most importantly, he gets geek culture right. Live Action Role Playing (LARP) is real, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are real, and even Marcus delaying intimacy with the girl at his side to participate in an online chat seems "right."

Hippies and Yippies should enjoy the book as validation of their activities. Young people should enjoy the book as validation of their importance to society. Geeks should enjoy the book because it glorifies some very geeky activities. However, I especially encourage conservatives, supporters of law and order, and those who wonder why both major candidates in the 2008 U.S. Presidential election pledged to shut down the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, to read this book and keep an open mind.

Little Brother could serve as a loose manual for insurrection, a sort of high-tech anarchist cookbook. Or it could be just an entertaining book, a fictional story to read on an idle weekend. That's up to you, and to those we entrust to keep us safe.

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  • If my kids were just a little older, or this book had just a little less sex in it, I’d make my kids read it. As it is, I’ll make them read it in a couple of years.