Published by Tor
In the very near future, next year, next month, or perhaps tomorrow, San Francisco is devastated by a terrorist attack of the same level as the attacks on September 11. That in itself is frightening enough, but what is even more terrifying in Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is the way in which the government, in the form of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reacts in the wake of those attacks.
Doctorow’s protagonist, a very tech-savvy high school senior by the name of Marcus (and w1n5t0n and m1k3y) is at the center of the novel’s plot. Cutting school to play an ARG (alternate reality game), Marcus and his pals (Darryl, Van, and Jolu) are in the heart of San Francisco when the terrorists attack the city, destroying the Bay Bridge (not the Golden Gate Bridge, but the Bay Bridge, which is a more vital commuter bridge for the area). Marcus and his friends are taken into custody by the DHS and interrogated as suspects in the terrorist attacks. Marcus is a bit of a wise-ass, so he only makes his stay with DHS more difficult on himself, but he eventually is released and told the DHS will be watching him. What Marcus finds upon his release is a devastated San Francisco under Martial Law and “protected” by the DHS.
Although the above may sound like enough for one story, this only servesas the impetus for the main question of Doctorow’s novel – when is “security” too much of an infringement on personal freedom? Of course the book is not as glib and is more entertaining than the question itself, in fact, a lot more entertaining and thought-provoking. Marcus is a hacker, he is something of a computer genius by normal standards. With the novel set in the not-too-distant future, things like XBoxes are still prevalent, and play an important role in the novel. A future iteration of the XBox allows Marcus to create a network seemingly undetected by the DHS, where he can communicate with other people of his age to start up a revolution of sorts against all of the “security” being forced upon San Francisco.
Through this network, Xnet, Marcus (as m1k3y) is able to lay low while still building up an impressive network. Much like a self-propagating meme or computer virus, m1k3y’s underground revolution builds a great deal of momentum in San Francisco. Many of the younger people on the Xnet (as their slogan comes to be “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25”), are frightened and looking for answers. Marcus teeters a line, he knows just how bad the DHS can be, but he fears revealing his personal secret of torture at the hands of the DHS. This may be something of a stretch, but the way in which Doctorow presents Marcus’s internal feelings of embarrassment about the torture he felt was not unlike the shame that rape victims say they feel. Everything is torn down about the person and they are utterly stripped of their being and humanity. Throughout the novel, I got the feeling that Marcus could be caught at anytime.
Despite that analogy and the frightening overtones of the scope of this story, Doctorow provides a great balance and manages to keep the story upbeat throughout. He also gives the reader what amounts to a guide to security evasion and computer hacking. Since the book is told from Marcus’s first-person point-of-view, these passages are very readable and come across more of a conversation than anything else. Only a couple of these “conversational instructions” slowed the pace of the plot.
Doctorow’s novel is scary because it resonates so much with the real world; personal freedoms are sacrificed in order for our own “safety.” Doctorow evokes both Orwell and Philip K. Dick in the sense of paranoia, but Doctorow (obviously) brings a more modern sensibility to the fore. Doctorow has been at the forefront of electronic rights and in the science fiction genre for the past few years, so the culmination of his background and those two authors proves for a great combination. Aside from the aforementioned slow patches, the novel is note-perfect and I found it very difficult to put the book down. Entertaining, enlightening and eye-opening, Little Brother will only further reinforce Cory Doctorow’s presence as one of the visionaries of free speech advocacy and great storytelling in the 21st Century.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford