Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother is often categorized as science fiction, like 1984, the book that inspired it, but I think that’s wrong.  Neither are science fiction.  Both books are political philosophy, and even though both books are set slightly in the future, they are about today’s politics.  Little Brother is an exciting story, well told, vividly detailed, full of technological ideas, excellently plotted, with engaging characterization of a Wi-Fi generation – a real page turner.  I highly recommend reading Little Brother.  But it’s also as serious as a terrorist attack.


Cory Doctorow campaigns hard for his beliefs, standing on Little Brother like a soapbox.  I’m sorry Little Brother didn’t get more widespread public attention, because it deserves it, but I’m guessing that outside of the ghetto of science fiction and the geek world of Slashdot, it’s was pretty much ignored.  This is unfortunate, because the ideas it brings up for debate need universal attention.

Now, that’s not to say I completely agree with Doctorow.  I have some fundamental differences in philosophy.  Marcus Yallow, the seventeen year old hero of this novel, and his three friends have a nightmare encounter with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and from then on the story diverges philosophically with my thinking.  Doctorow believes in fighting fire with fire, and Marcus and his friends use high tech to battle the high tech of the DHS.

If we lived in Iran I would agree with that, but we don’t.  We live in an open society, and if we want to keep it free and open, we need to fight for civil liberties on a battlefield where everyone can watch.  Doctorow invents a special distribution of Linux called Paranoid Linux which allows for an underground youth rebellion to assemble in privacy.  And he compares this new revolution to the radical yippies of the 1960s. 

But there’s a huge difference.  Back then the rallying cry was “The Whole World is Watching.”  The way to fight big brother oppression is to make everything public.  Doctorow has his revolutionaries encrypt everything.  That’s bad.

I want to live in a society where I can write anything I want in this blog.  I don’t want to live in a society where I must encrypt my thoughts and secretly share them with my friends with public and private keys.

More than that I want the government to use all the technology in its power to find the enemies of society, but I also want our government to prosecute terrorists in the full light of day, and not hide them in secret prisons around the world.  None of this bullshit about civil rights being different in war times.

Doctorow is right, innocent people do suffer when fighting terrorism, but turning them into underground freedom fighters isn’t the answer.  The book eventually does come to my way of thinking and investigative reporting saves the day.  But there are many smaller issues that need to be discussed by a wider audience.

For example, should there be video cameras in classrooms, and do our children need 24×7 surveillance.  I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s where I ran wild and unobserved.  I loved that freedom and I’d hate to think the kids today don’t have it.  But we live in a much different world. 

Education is failing many children.  The failure of education is creating a widening class divide. Education is the tax straw that’s breaking many a local and state financial back.  There is a tremendous sense of failure regarding education.  If we applied the “Whole World is Watching” to the K-12 landscape, where anyone could tune into any classroom and see what’s going on for themselves, would that revolutionize the problem?  Would people really claim urban schools get equal quality education as suburban schools? 

Doctorow had a classroom scene which caused a teacher to be fired.  If it had been on video would that have happened?  Would kids act up or tune out if they knew their parents were watching?  I’d vote for more cameras in the school, but also want to find ways to give kids more privacy from adults after school.  We live in the era of watching video cameras, and we’ve yet to explore the impact of that philosophically.

We also live in a world of too many secrets.  I don’t want or need Paranoid Linux.  If parents could observe their darling young ones in their classes would it help education in our nation?  If parents had to spend one day a month going to school with their children, would our educational system get the improvements it needed?  That would mean on average there would always be one parent observer in every classroom every day.

In Little Brother the DHS conduct very secret processing of suspects.  Would not cameras or citizen observers have solved the central problems of this story?

Doctorow tries to make it clear that he thinks the computer techniques the DHS and other police systems use to sift out the bad guys are silly because they produce too many false positives, and that might be true, but we’re fighting a war on individuals, not nations, and we have to use such statistical techniques.  When a few people can kill thousands, we have to find new criminal detection tools. 

Little Brother is a novel about privacy, civil liberty and freedom during an era when people are willing to sacrifice all of those rights for more security.  I’m surprised that rabid conservatives haven’t made a call to ban Little Brother because the Department of Homeland Security is the villain of the story.  But they haven’t because we live in America, not North Korea.

While reading Little Brother, I often felt on the side of the bad guys (the government), but then, in this story the rallying cry of the young is, “Don’t trust anyone over 25” and I’m 58.  It also makes me wonder how I would react if I could meet my younger self who used to believe “don’t trust anyone over thirty.” 

Little Brother does more to capture the feeling of the radical sixties than any book I’ve ever read set in the sixties.  But I’m not sure if Doctorow isn’t idolizing the wrong people.  Abbie Hoffman was an asshole.  The yippies were a joke.

It’s very hard to be anti-government and not sound anti-American, but I think this book pulls it off.  Everyone wants to be free and secure, but some people are willing to give up a lot of freedoms to feel more secure.  What Doctorow illustrates is sometimes that’s an illusion, but what he doesn’t explore is the real value of security.  Freedom and security are entwined like Yin and Yang.

A society of billions is unbelievably complex and there are no easy answers.  Most of us want to live our lives in peace and pursue happiness.  There are a few, and by population standards, an extremely tiny portion, who want to hurt other people, or bring down society.  It would be great if we could put all of these people on an island and let them have the freedom to hurt each other, but that’s not possible.  We have to find these few and neutralize them.  That will require police techniques that might hurt or inconvenience the normal citizen.  I don’t see any way out of that, but Doctorow brings up the topic for debate.

JWH – 7/17/10

3 thoughts on “Little Brother by Cory Doctorow”

  1. Nice review, James. I had many of the same issues with the themes of the book and how they were played out. It was pretty heavy handed prosletyzing, too. No subtlety about making the author’s point. In the end, I just told myself it was intended to be read by kids and the author probably felt he had to simplify the issues.

    Sadly, I had another issue with the book. There was a fast-paced, exciting adventure story in there, with good characterisation and nice writing, but it was absolutely buried under a mass of exposition. It felt like half the book was the author droning on about technology or history – but especially technology. I know you expect a bit of this in sci-fi but this was way over the top and completely spoilt it for me.

    I’ve read a number of Doctorow’s short stories and haven’t enjoyed them much – although he’s clearly a good writer. This was the first of his novels that I’ve tried and it has really put me off trying another. But then, I have fairly idiosyncratic taste and I know a lot of people think he’s great.

    1. I think one thing that helped me with the exposition is I listened to the book. I can handle more exposition and narrative digression in books when I listen to them. Don’t know why.

      Also, the structure of the story reminded me of STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert A. Heinlein. That novel is almost a monologue of exposition. It was also another young adult novel, and like LITTLE BROTHER, short. I don’t like long novels that do that, which Heinlein turned to in his later years.

      Both books have huge info-dumps that could feel like lectures to some readers. I guess the success of that technique depends on how interested readers are in the subject matter presented.

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