Little Brother by Cory Doctorow–book review

You have probably heard by now of Cory Doctorow, a co-editor of BoingBoing who publishes his novels — including this one — under a Creative Commons licence. You can check out the Wikipedia article for his Canadian connections and more, and have a look at his Little Brother page, where you can download the book and also see the author’s reasons for writing it.

But don’t let the background story get in the way of a good read, and yes, Little Brother is a good read.

Here’s the basic plot. Our hero Marcus, aka w1n5t0n (get it?) is a student in an San Francisco high school of the very near future, where gait-recognition cameras watch every hallway and students are issued laptops that monitor their every online move. And that’s before the terrorist attack that kills thousands in the city, and the narrator and three of his friends find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Normal civil liberties are suspended, prisoners are held in a nearby Guantanamo-type facility without charges or access to lawyers and without notifying their families, who believe they are dead, and yes, the bad guys (read US government) are willing to use torture to get confessions of guilt. Before the attack Marcus’s hacking of  school surveillance systems looked like understandable — although unsanctioned — teenage behaviour; afterwards it makes him a suspect. This is where the story gets going. Politicised by his rough treatment in DHS custody, Marcus is more determined than ever to fight the system. And as the government takes away more and more rights and freedoms he figures out how to do it: by mobilising the youth of San Francisco via the Xnet, a secure network created by kids.

The book works on a few levels. It’s a good story, with lots of action; readers can take a lot of geeky pleasure in our narrator’s explanations of just how the hacks work (try this at home, kids!); and then there are the larger messages around surveillance, privacy, and civil rights. Doctorow isn’t subtle about these themes — there are didactic as well as techie breaks in the action here and there where Marcus spells it all out for us (and to the adults in the book). But it works, maybe because this is a YA novel and we expect teens (and teen narrators in books) to be idealistic and direct in a way that adults can’t really get away with. And while some of these concepts are not exactly surprising (that government sanctioned torture in the name of the “war on terrorism” is wrong; that the public can easily be persuaded to give up rights if they think it’s in the name of safety), Doctorow does make a basic point that we don’t often hear: that gathering more data on people’s activities naturally leads to worse intelligence. As he has said in interviews (I’m paraphrasing here), it leads to looking for the same needle in a much larger haystack. And since there will always be a percentage of error, that also means that more innocent people will be unjustly accused.

Stuff to think about.


2 thoughts on “Little Brother by Cory Doctorow–book review

  1. Thanks for the review. I’ve been pushing this on my coworkers, especially the pages, and even bought my son a copy for Christmas. It’s a great antidote for fear-mongering and the promise that conformity brings safety.


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