In Little Brother, Cory Doctorow paints a dystopian near future when the rights of citizens are taken away in the name of National Security. Marcus Yallow is an ordinary teenager attending High School, bristling under the technological surveillance imposed by his school. Smart and tech savvy, he skips school along with his friends to participate in an Alternate Reality Game. Unfortunately, while he is out with his friends, terrorists blow up the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, the teens are held for six days by the Department of Homeland Security. When they are finally released, they find their city is no longer their own and their lives will never be the same.
A true descendant of Orwell’s 1984, Doctorow’s modern day take on the police state in the information age is chilling, all the more because the technology within its pages either already exists or is close to being developed. When your movements, habits, even your gait can be tracked, what does privacy really mean? How much are people willing to give up for the sake of safety?
Each chapter is dedicated to a book store the author loves and supports. Details about each one is given at the beginning of each new chapter, which gives the book a personal touch, though I confess to being depressed by the chapter dedicated to Borders. Since the novel is several years old, some of the other stores may be defunct as well.
One of the things I loved about this book is how Marcus, first as W1n5t0n (a nod to the protagonist of 1984), then later as M1k3y on the encrypted Xnet, takes the surveillance being used to monitor him and turns that same technology into a tool to fight his oppressors. He’s smart but not a genius, an ordinary teen with a taste for geeky things; he has no special powers, unless you count teen angst magnified by continual oppression by the state.
The first person point of view lends the narrative an uncertainty and urgency beyond the events themselves. Marcus is a teenager, after all, and in addition to the dire circumstances, he also has the same problems as many high school students: roller coaster emotions, trouble with authority, problems with his parents, his friends, girls… and that’s not including the worry that the DHS will make him disappear forever.
One of the things I had trouble with was understanding some of the technology. However I’m not a technophobe, and Doctorow simplified the concepts enough that anyone could understand the basic principles behind the security and surveillance tools. Also included by the author are instructions on how to learn more so that readers can build some projects themselves.
Also, despite not being technically minded, I spotted a flaw in the main character’ s security plan. At first I assumed I misunderstood the concept and further reading would clarify things, but later in the novel Marcus is shocked when he discovers the flaw. I found it hard to believe the main character didn’t see this sooner, though it’s amazing what people choose not to see when faced with limited options.
Little Brother is one of my favorite books. I proudly read excerpts to my son to generate discussions about history, and despite the fact that I’ve read it before, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Little Brother is sure to become a classic that will stand the test of time.