Little Brother

by Cory Doctorow

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2008
ISBN: 0-7653-1985-3
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 380

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Marcus is a 17-year-old high-school student in San Francisco. He likes taking technology apart and rebuilding it, learning how it works, and improving it for his needs. He also likes not being monitored by the school surveillance systems or forced to use the buggy spyware-infested default OS of the free school laptops. Otherwise, his main hobby is playing ARGs: role-playing games on a mass scale that may have thousands of players or teams of players and that involve real-world locations and hidden clues.

He and three of his friends had skipped out of school to follow a clue in their current ARG when a terrorist attack destroys the Bay Bridge. They're caught in the subsequent chaos, picked up by a Homeland Security team as suspicious, and then taken to a secret prison and interrogated after Marcus initially refuses to unlock his cell phone or reveal his passwords. After grueling and humiliating five days of imprisonment, he and two of his friends are released with dire warnings about how they're being watched. The third, Marcus's best friend who was injured during the aftermath of the bombings, is not released with them.

Marcus is too angry and humiliated to tell anyone what happened and swears his friends to secrecy, lying to his parents about being trapped in a refugee camp on the other side of the Bay. He vows revenge on Homeland Security for his imprisonment and his friend. But the world to which he returns is changed: surveillance is everywhere, as are Homeland Security agents, and the government massively increases security checkpoints, restrictions, and monitoring of everything.

Little Brother, as you've probably figured out from the above plot summary, is a political protest novel and a sort of young-adult modernization of Orwell's 1984 with computers. It's also a revenge novel, with most of the plot driven by a bright teenager with lots of friends making life increasingly difficult for bureaucratic, invasive monitoring in the name of fighting terrorism. If the summary above sounds implausible, that's because Doctorow takes some significant liberties in pursuit of his setup. The best thing the book has going for it is that it's fast-paced and sufficiently emotionally engrossing that one is generally too busy turning the pages to argue.

Doctorow here wholeheartedly embraces a cypherpunk attitude towards computing. Parts of it reminded me a lot of the more paranoid political rants of the heyday of the list. Strong encryption, black networks, webs of trust, and identity hacking (particularly of RFID chips and similar tracers) are central to most of what Marcus does. With that also come segments of infodumping, unfortunately. Doctorow tries to keep them interesting by making full use of Marcus's first-person voice, but a complete introduction to public key cryptography is a lot to swallow no matter how you dump it into the middle of a book. I was reminded of portions of Cryptonomicon, but Doctorow lacks Stephenson's fascination with baroque technology and some of his infodumping style. Doctorow's segments are shorter than Stephenson's rambles, but I found them more boring for the already-informed reader. Stephenson digs into things, whereas Doctorow tends a bit more towards "ooo, shiny." I don't want to read a Boing Boing post in the middle of a novel.

As for the substance, I had a reaction similar to my impression of a lot of cypherpunks technology: Doctorow gets the technology mostly right, but gets the people wrong. In particular, he suffers from the standard problem of being way too optimistic about mass uptake of computer hacks and crypto-based black networks. Everything that Marcus does in Little Brother is possible, and I can imagine a dedicated core group of people doing it. I can't imagine so many people joining a black network built on hacked Xboxes running a CD-based Linux distro that it becomes an effective mass communication medium, or that even with help from a convenient ISP (with completely unrealistic market share) Marcus and his friends would manage to massively increase the encrypted network traffic as portrayed in the book. Little Brother is riddled with this sort of thing. Nearly everything Marcus comes up with hits a tipping point and becomes a massive youth fad, which even in the midst of an over-the-top oppressive government crackdown strikes me as horribly unlikely.

Simiarly, Doctorow needs a hissable villain, a Big Brother, and creates one in the form of a vicious Homeland Security department. This one is emotionally tempting, at least for those of us with a civil liberties obsession. He takes the stupidity of the TSA, Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, warrantless searches, Guantánamo Bay, data mining, torture (including waterboarding), and behavior profiling, turns them up to eleven, and directs them all at a sympathetic protagonist. All of these programs are real; the government has done all of this. However, what Doctorow assembles from the components is a stereotype of a government that lacks intelligible motivation for what it does.

Doctorow's theory for this novel is that another major terrorist attack would cause the government and much of the populace (voiced here by Marcus's dad) to completely lose it and agree to enough of that being done openly to US citizens to support the plot of the book. But there are more psychological lines here than Doctorow is acknowledging, and Doctorow discounts all motivations except fear mixed with a totalitarian desire for power. It's emotionally seductive, but it's also a cheap shot.

Despite this, Homeland Security would have felt more plausible if any of the agents in the book came off as serious professionals who truly were trying to do their jobs properly and had even adequate amounts of street smarts. Instead, there's a black-and-white line and an utter lack of understanding of Marcus's friends. The one agent who's put forward as the face of their actions is both sadistic and remarkably incompetent. Little Brother takes Homeland Security from a pessimistic projection of current day to a full-out secret police with practically no transition and a bit of handwaving political justification. Real US government agents are not uniformly this stupid.

In other words, Doctorow falls prey to the tendency to dehumanize and villainize political opponents. I largely agree with him politically, which makes it seductive, but it's still cheap. There is little evidence here of any motives for the "other side" apart from terror-driven desire for authoritarian control, which is more of a cypherpunk political talking point than an accurate representation of reality. It's hard to walk this line in a dystopian political novel, so I can't fault Doctorow too much for the failure, but he did fail.

The saving grace of Little Brother is that it's an emotionally satisfying revenge story with a likeable protagonist and excellent pacing, despite the occasional infodump. It gets the reader good and mad in the first few chapters, makes one want the government to be defeated and humiliated, and then slowly delivers, with a lot of tension as Marcus finds creative ways of fighting back. It sucked me right in, got me fully emotionally engaged, and was almost impossible to put down. I suspect that someone who disagrees politically with Doctorow would throw it across the room, but if you have libertarian, liberal, or cypherpunk tendencies and like to see a good humiliation of a government police state, it's a satisfying and well-told story. And I will give Doctorow major credit in one other place: he avoided the ending I was afraid of, where all the neat cypherpunk technology saves the world, and instead told a much more nuanced and realistic ending than I had expected. Little Brother shows some awareness that the underground crypto panacea doesn't live up to its promises, and that politics still rests on much older solutions.

I'd like to be able to recommend this book. I had a lot of fun reading it, and as a near-future thriller it certainly delivers on the tension. I also think it's a very well-meaning book that's trying to warn its readers about giving up civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism and explain some of the things ordinary people can do to fight back against pervasive surveillance.

Unfortunately, it's a guilty pleasure, and in a much more significant way than a trashy romance. It's a political hatchet job that gets a lot of its emotional power from turning the villains into caricatures. It reminds me far too much of the sort of political debate that happened on cypherpunks and that happens in blog comments, and I think it's a form of political debate that only preaches to the choir and doesn't persuade. Even the most sympathetic voice for the other "side" in this novel is obviously deluded within the framework of the novel and undergoes a sudden conversion experience that felt like the unobtainable dream of every Usenet flamewar participant.

Maybe this sort of emotional tone is inherent in the dystopian warning novel, and I'm criticising Little Brother in the same way that 1984 would have been criticized in its day. Maybe this is just the effective way to present the argument. But it still bothers me too much to recommend a book that I otherwise enjoyed.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-06-26

Last modified and spun 2015-07-06