Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is a classic dystopian novel set in San Francisco in the near future and marketed toward young adults. All this really means is that the protagonists are 17, there is a lot of exposition about the different tech-related things in the novel (which I think most adults would need, too), and there is a little bit of teen angst and early sexual experience (luckily nothing too groan-inducing). But the message is appropriate for all ages: protect your freedoms.

A few years from now, sometime during the first term of the next president (sidebar: said president is, somewhat confusingly, not only a Republican but also remarkably similar to George W. Bush insofar as being perceived as stupid, taking constant vacations, and having advisers that resemble Karl Rove/Dick Cheney/Donald Rumsfeld, but is definitely not Bush himself), the Bay Bridge is destroyed by terrorists. When high school student and sort-of hacker Marcus Yallow and his friends are found cutting school nearby, they are detained by the Department of Homeland Security. Marcus, and two of his three companions, get to go home in just under a week after disclosing all their cell phone and email passwords if they promise not to tell anyone where they’ve been. But Marcus isn’t about to take things lying down.

San Francisco, at this point, is operating under extremely tight—and extremely unconstitutional—security, and Marcus determines the best way to bring down the machine is to make DHS see abnormal patterns in everyone’s behavior. He establishes a secure network using old XBoxes and has plenty of company in trying to smash the police state. With the DHS closing in on his identity as the ringleader of a “terrorist organization,” he doesn’t know who to trust and needs to find a way to really blow the whistle when he sees that peaceful protest is just getting all his friends arrested.

One thing that was really successfully done here was Marcus’ endgame: the tension builds in an organic way and the climax and wrap-up don’t feel rushed, which is pretty impressive for an “everyone might be out to get me” book. And the teen stuff wasn’t too bad either. Marcus gets his first girlfriend and she’s pretty cool—not beautiful but fun, smart, and able to hold her own in a fairly male-dominated subculture—a good message in a young adult book. And there’s nothing annoying about parents and teachers who just don’t understand, or problems with the cool kids. These teenagers have more important things to worry about.

As far as the political nature of the themes, they frankly don’t seem that political. Negative reviews (e.g., on Amazon) have complained that the portrayal of DHS and the federal government is too one-sidedly negative. Well, it’s a dystopian novel. It just happens to be about the infrastructure of today, rather than a futuristic one. RFIDs really are in your subway pass, and if you register your pass under your name and address (and bank account number) you are being tracked. My city, for example, admits to doing this. And under REAL ID legislation your drivers license would have such a chip also. This isn’t about politics; it’s not even really about terrorists or who the president is or who we’re at war with. It’s about people being informed enough about their own society to retain and value their privacy.

That’s why the very end of the novel fell a bit flat for me. Doctorow—sorry, Marcus—ends by exhorting the reader not to “vote for none of the above” (i.e., choose not to vote), but to vote “for freedom” instead. It’s fairly explicit that you’re supposed to vote out the ones in power, which we know from the rest of the novel is the Republicans, but I know I’m not the only one to notice that the other major party isn’t exactly the party of freedom either. And somewhat controversially, I don’t consider low voter turnout a problem: nonvoters are significantly less informed than those who do vote, and I don’t want even more know-nothings having sway over things. And some people feel that abstaining from voting sends a message in itself; I choose to vote but I think that opinion is valid as well.

There are also two afterwords, one by Bruce Schneier, a security expert, and the other by Andrew Huang, a former MIT student who hacked the XBox. Both send what I think is a really positive message to kids and adults alike: hacking really means thinking about security in creative ways, and breaking a system is valuable because it can teach us about its weaknesses and help us make a better one.

In sum, this is only a few hours of reading but well worth it and I plan to recommend it to my family, especially—my friends tend to be informed and concerned about privacy to begin with, but I think this is a great introduction for people who are less tech-savvy, or who just don’t think about it that much, to what can be done with today’s technology and how we should think about keeping our lives both safe and private.