Little Brother – A Review

I’ve long been a fan of Cory Doctorow’s work. I think it discovered him through Escape Pod, but I can’t be entirely certain. In 2008 he released a book called Little Brother and for some reason it has taken me this long to sit down and read it.

Well when I say “sit down and read it” that makes it sound like I bought a copy. I didn’t (though now I want to). Instead I opted to read it for free through Daily Lit. They’re a site that distributes books legitimately through an email subscription service. They break books up into chunks and you set how large these chunks are and how often you get them.

This is one of those books that is likely to divide readers. There are a lot of controversial things that he deals with, everything from “ethical” hacking to government mis-use of power. The book starts with you getting to know Marcus Yallow, a 17 year old High School student, who is constantly in and out of trouble thanks to his tendency to try and circumvent the many electronic security measures that are placed in his day to day life. He and his friends are cutting school to play an alternate reality game when a terrorist attack occurs nearby. They’re picked up and taken to a detention center and things go downhill rapidly from there. Ultimately, and because one of his friends remains in detention, Marcus ends up trying to take on the Department of Homeland Security using every trick in the book and quite a few he invents along the way.

I can see where this book and the things that Marcus and the DHS do to one another would hit too close to home. It talks about things like secret prisons and racial profiling and it is arguably a teaching tool for anyone who wants to learn a thing or two about the tricks Marcus uses. I got into a lively Twitter discussion about this very thing. More on that in a ‘graph or two. Strictly speaking this is a very well written science fiction piece. The characters are believable. The pacing is TIGHT, at least for the most part. Interestingly, the places where it falters are where Doctorow uses Marcus to explain some bit of tech speak for the non-techie adults in the room. That’s forgiven though to a large part because the rest of it is so well done.

I highly recommend that you check it out. You can download it for free here or buy it here. Prepare for it to change how you look at some things around you, particularly if you read the afterwords (and you should). It might also offend you, particularly if you’re like some of the characters in the books who believe that the government should go to (nearly) any lengths to capture the terrorists in our midst. I will say that’s one area that this book failed in. As I said to someone on Twitter, every techno thriller needs a boogeyman, and Doctorow uses the DHS without tweaking them too much. I’ll say that he paints the DHS agents a little too starkly, to the point where I’m surprised they aren’t wearing actual jack boots. I’m willing to cut a little slack since this is written in first person and we are getting everything filtered through the eyes of a seventeen year old.

Now on to that Twitter discussion. The question raised by that discussion was, are the methods the kids used (which caused havoc in public, on mass transit, and in other ways) justified? In spite of the fact that the intent of these kids was nothing more than peaceful protest and to point out the flaws in the system, innocent people were inconvenienced (arguably harmed) and systems that they relied on in day to day life were brought to their knees. As a result the kids were branded as terrorists and actively sought by the authorities. I suppose the question I ask myself is, if the government became like the government portrayed in this book, and depending on your POV we aren’t that far off, what would I be justified in doing to fight that government?

Three times this quote is brought up:

‘Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.’ – Declaration of Independence

That’s Marcus’ reasoning behind his willingness to do what he does. He is attempting to overthrow a form of government that has become destructive. I’d like to think that I’d be willing to do the same thing. It would inconvenience people, sure. But if the government is abusing us then that would be my right, correct?

Then I think about a website that I saw recently where someone is calling people to arms since they believe that our current government is being run by a man who isn’t even a citizen and that this could only come to pass as a part of a massive government conspiracy. I recognize the difference between open armed rebellion and kids cloning and swapping RFID cards on people, but it makes me pause none the less. I would have to be completely certain that there was no other way of dealing with the problem at hand before I took a step like that.

On a lighter note, I am certainly in support of ethical hacking. If you notice a weakness in a lock or a website or some other piece of hardware or software, I think it’s the right thing to do to bring it to the attention of the manufacturer. If they don’t do anything to fix it in a reasonable amount of time and you have some way of taking it to the next level then go for it. People will be mad at you. There will be repercussions. Those are things you need to be aware of. But it’s the right thing.

So what do you think? How far is too far when it comes to civil disobedience? Is some called for these days? I’m thinking here about those that elected to wear kilts commando/regimental style at airline checkpoints, but there are other examples. Is there some CD called for against corporations these days too?

3 thoughts on “Little Brother – A Review”

  1. Hey Scott, thanks for posting this review. I forgot about this book, I read it over a year ago. I really enjoyed the characters and the story. It was a cool techie hip story. I don’t agree with everything in the story, nor do I disagree with everything in the story – and I think that’s great. I appreciate Cory bringing these touchy issues up. Anything that’s controversial deserves a lot of examination, and what a cool way to bring these issues he deals with out there, writing a fun novel. DailyLit is pretty cool. I used to use it when I received emails to my phone. I no longer have internet on my phone so I’ve stopped using it, but plan to in the future. I think getting fiction in small chunks (as in 15 – 30 minute podcasts for commuting) is the way of the future.

    1. You’re welcome Dan. Yeah there were a lot of cool touches here. I REALLY want to visit SF now thanks to him. I also appreciate any SF that tackles the harder questions of the day. Whether you agree with the author’s world view (as you perceive it) you gotta cheer attempts like this on. Of course that raises another point. Is the POV of Marcus towards these things just Doctorow using his characters as a bully pulpit? I know there are some authors who do that. Here it almost seems that way.

      As far as Daily Lit goes, I concur that getting our fiction serially in portable chunks whether in text or audio form, is certainly more compatible with most people’s lifestyles. Now if only I could get DailyLit on my kindle.

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