Cory Doctorow's Little Brother

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Little Brother is a coming of age story, though what is coming of age is not only the male protagnist, Marcus, but also a society as a whole. We are at a point where information is free and fast and communication runs rampant. What happens if another 9/11 scale attack occurs on American soil? Do we take the stance that all of our surveillance was for nothing, a detriment, that we have only hurt citizens and not protected them? Or do we take the stance that we are not viligant enough? Are people too free? When millions of e-mails, telephone call, chat rooms, messenger conversations, message board posts, usenet posts, and online blogs spew forth a wall of noise constantly, what is the best approach to detect that faint signal that might be threatening harm?

Polemic, but researched, this novel is a great debate fulcrum. There are themes, here, that kids have to address now. Communication will only become more open in the future, a worldwide castastrophe nonewithstanding, and the amount of damage and invidual can inflict will only become worse as weapons increase in power. And techniques that shut down a citizen's ability to take a vacation because she has nipple rings she refuses to remove, or to read our private e-mails because we are friends with someone overseas, or to make us scared to have a free conversation on a phone; are all breakable by people in the know how. With that in mind, is more or less better?

Doctorow is on the side of freedom. Anyone who follows Cory Doctorow's postings on the website should know this. There are plenty, though, who still cite information attributed to Marcus's father in the book: what freedom I lose is me just doing my duty. To say that Doctorow is heavy handed in the themes of this book is an understatement. This is a book about embracing freedom and fighting to get it back, where the bad guys torture children and rat out classmates and abuse their power. But this is a heavy handed debate all around. One group shouts out for street corner cameras and governmental need of checking into bank accounts. The other says the government should never snoop no matter what. The only sort of book that can handle this material is probably going to have to take one side or another. Three hundreds of pages of "this is reasonable, but maybe not that reasonable" could be tiresome as a text.

And Little Brother is not tiresome. Terrifying, nerve wracking, and sleep-stealingly excellent are better words. When Marcus, Jolu, Van and Darryl skip school to play an ARG, a terrorist attack leaving thousands dead occurs in San Francisco. Caught off guard about what to do, they first head for a shelter and then decide to leave that idea alone and head back out. One of the kids is stabbed in the process. While trying to flag down help for their friend, they step right into the clutches of overzealous Homeland Security agents. Taking Marcus's standard equipment of a cellphone and memory sticks as a threat, he is psychologicall tortured, threatened and then released. As are two of his other friends. The fourth, who was the injured one, disappears.

A government so desperate and panicked that it would abduct its own citizens, children at that, without warning and without oversite, and torture them "just because" is pure speculation (as far as I know), but much of the remainder of the novel is anecdotal truths combining elements from real life waterboarding, computer hacks, social norms for kids, quotes from TSA agents, Internet memes, and post-9/11 sentiment. In something of an echo of Doctorow's speculative "proof that our security is not working is proof that we need rougher security measures", a recent solution proposed for the failure of Britain's massive camera network was "more cameras".

Little Brother, showing that truth does not always have to be painful, is full of interesting little security hacks and techniques and brings up a lot of projects that teenagers and adults might like to try out. Sure, some of them are less than savory from a legal perspective, but plenty of them are perfectly legit. It also raises awareness of how security flaws crop up, what makes good and bad security, and how people with your best interest at heart may only harm you if they are not careful. A common theme is that if a device put together by kids for cheap in this novel can stop security measures, then what hope do we have to outwitting terrorists? Like many things about this book, it can be considered up for debate, but it makes an interesting one.

Most good young adult fiction is about how everyone makes a difference. It is about how children cannot and should not be written off as second class citizens. They, too, can make stances and they will one day inherit a world polluted not only by their own choices, but moreso by the choices of those who came before them. Little Brother succeeds in this, but not by gifting Marcus with super powers or making all adults bumbling idiots. Marcus's greatest victories often sticking to his guns and knowing who to go to for help. In our multi-tiered world, this is an unbelievably important lesson for teens and younger. The world is not going to magically become better, things are rarely clearcut and where one authority figure is self-serving another is selfless, and it will ultimately take people working together, inspiring others, to try and effect a goodness in our new society.

Rated Great for a number of reasons. It combines a primer on electronics, cryptography, social studies, and American history for kids that adults should also find fascinating. Not only that, but each chapter is dedicated to a particular bookstore or chain that Doctorow shops out, helping to inspire an even deeper love of reading.

The following quote comes from Andrew Huang in the second of the book's two afterwords. I find it to be a most excellent quote:

There is a term for this dysfunction--it is called an autoimmune disease, where an organism's defense system goes into overdrive so much that it fails to recognize itself and attacks its own cells. Ultimately, the organism self-destructs. Right now, America is on the verge of going into anaphylactic shock over its own freedoms, and we need to inoculate ourselves against this. Technology is no cure for this paranoia; in fact, it may enhance the paranoia: it turns us into prisoners of our own device. Coercing millions of people to strip off their outer garments and walk barefoot through metal detectors every day is no solution either. It only serves to remind the population every day that they have a reason to be afraid, while in practice providing only a flimsy barrier to a determined adversary.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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