Little Brother, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2008, 382 pages, C$19.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1985-2

As a mild-mannered reviewer, I try to avoid throwing around terms like “importance”. But reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, it’s hard to avoid thinking that of all the books I’ve read recently, this one has the best chances of carving its own little place in history.

If it does become an important book, it won’t be by accident: Doctorow has deliberately set out to write something controversial with this book, and even the broadest-minded readers may experience twinges of discomfort at some points.

It begins with a group of high-school friends skipping school to play an alternate-reality game in downtown San Francisco. But the game is soon interrupted by a terrible terrorist attack, and soon our narrator Marcus (otherwise named W1n5t0n) is apprehended on suspicions of terrorism. Roughly interrogated by authorities, he’s eventually released… but not all of his friends are, and San Francisco is soon overrun by police forces intent on maintaining an excess of peace and order. What’s a teenager to do? Rebel against the overreaching authorities, of course.

Little Brother is literally written to rouse the young ones. A tale of hip high-tech resistance, this is a novel made to be put on the YA shelves of your local bookstore, read by disaffected teenagers and passed around in impromptu book clubs as the coolest thing ever. It makes Science Fiction (or at least techno-thrillers) look good, and serves as yet another reminder to adults that the hottest, most vibrant corner of SF is now written for young adults. Unlike past attempts at SF-for-teens, this doesn’t take place in a far deep-space future, but within the next five years, and tackles issues that are of vital interest to everyone right now.

Best of all, it’s shamelessly, almost aggressively didactic. Marcus is pissed at the system, and his narrative is filled with tips and tricks on how to defeat it. Confound sensors, detect cameras, burn out RFIDs and hack the Internet using the how-to tutorials in this book. If Doctorow’s learned one thing about the Heinlein juveniles, it’s that there’s nothing wrong with a lot of exposition as long as it’s entertaining, and so Little Brother partly becomes an instruction manual on how to live in today’s world using today’s technology.

This novel, more than many other “forward-looking” works of SF, lives in the now. It’s not a 9/11 novel as much as it’s a post-9/11 story that deals with our response to those events. Beyond the hacking tricks, this is also a novel of social engineering, one that ties together digital activism with the fight for civil liberties. In Little Brother, Doctorow finds the ultimate fictional expression so far of the mindset he espouses daily on the wildly popular blog Boing Boing. What looks like “digital rights management” to some actually becomes “civil rights restrictions” to others, and it’s difficult to separate one threat from another in the big cauldron of issues.

So difficult, in fact, that chunks of Little Brother feel both reasonable and seditious at the same time: As Marcus fights the system that has unjustly harmed him, he espouses notions that are uncomfortably close to an anarchic strain of libertarianism. If there’s a serious political objection to make against Doctorow’s novel, it’s that Marcus’ rebellion is flashy and cool, but the other side of the revolution –the steady pressure from the less-radical masses —is given short thrift as an agent of change.

But that wouldn’t be nearly so cool, and the novel does nod in the direction of mass opinion as Marcus finds himself too close to the middle of a movement that has escaped him. Doctorow’s techno-utopianism has a big bad enemy, but has no use for the little anonymous jokers who would use the very same tools to make trouble simply for the lulz.

But we’re getting deep in considerations that would be wasted on lesser novels. As it stands, Little Brother is not just a joy to read, it’s a wonder to discuss. Its emphasis on civil rights is unusual no matter which segment of the population it’s marketed to, and its modern vitality is a welcome breath of fresh air in a field that seems content on paying homage to the past. As a part of Doctorow’s bibliography, it eclipses his previous books to become his masterpiece so far: I may like Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom a lot, but it doesn’t compare to the anger of Little Brother, and the intensity of Doctorow’s preoccupations match that of Overclocked as a faithful representation of the author’s defining themes.

Young or old, conservative or liberal, SF fan or not, Little Brother is a novel of the here and now, carefully attuned to the era’s pet psychosis and designed to make us question what we take for granted. It’s the rare novel that tries to create better citizens. Time will tell whether its impact will survive its own print run, but it’s already making waves and creating discussion.

[August 2008: Huh, look at that: there a quasi-Orwellian “1985” encoded in the ISBN of the book. Happy accident?]

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