Cory Doctorow. Little Brother. Craphound.com. 2007. E-book.
Remember the British TV show Max Headroom? It always began with the subtitle “20 Minutes into the Future.” This is the second Cory Doctorow book I have read, the other being Makers. Both novels are like Max Headroom in that they are set in the very near future. The stories, like the old TV show, focus on technology and would qualify as cyberpunk. Little Brother, the title is a play on 1984‘s Big Brother, could begin the day after tomorrow.
The narrator and most of the other main characters are high school teens who have a lot of computer savvy and enjoy live-action role-playing games. The quartet is tracking down clues in an online but live-action scavenger hunt in San Francisco where they live when they get rounded up by some heavies from the Department of Homeland Security. They are hooded, taken to a prison, tortured, and accused of being involved in a successful plot to destroy the Oakland Bay Bridge.
Three of them are released, including the narrator Marcus. Marcus and a new girlfriend then try to frustrate the DHS surveillance in the Bay Area by a combination of cyberspoofing and messing with RPIDs (“Arpids”) that have become ubiquitous—not only in EZ-Pass toll clickers and passports but also in credit cards, subway passes, and other common devices that the government is using to track people.
I give Doctorow credit for explaining some Internet arcana and especially for the clearest explanation I have read on Bayesian probability. The kids in the book understand these things; now the reader can, too. They are just trying to have fun with their role-playing games, online messaging, and flash mobs (though he does not call them that). But the DHS continues to track them and considers them potential terrorists.
One of the DHS sympathizers explains that “the framers of the Constitution intended it to be a living document,” that we have to be flexible for the “needs of the day,” that the Bill of Rights is subject to government interpretation.
When Marcus challenges this, is suspended from school for two weeks as “some kind of fundamentalist” like the alleged terrorists. It is not only unjust but also ironic. Indeed, the one caution I would have for some readers is that while the book is billed for Young Adults, i.e., junior high, Marcus does tell how he loses his virginity.
The author has a lot of acknowledgments in the book, and he confesses that he admires William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, especially Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a favorite of mine. Makers reminded me of Stephenson, and I recommended it to a friend who is a Stephenson fan. But the book that Little Brother is most like is The Journal of David Q. Little. Little Brother‘s Marcus could be Little’s little brother.
I thought I was probably the only person living who had read that book. It came out in 1967, and I never saw or heard anything of it since I read it then, but when I checked Amazon, I found out it has some fans. It was re-released in 2012 with some additional material written by a few big-name writers. Because it came out in the late sixties, the “20 minutes into the future” is like the sixties’ America rather than twenty-first century America. With no Internet, Mr. Little relies on typewriters and mimeographs like the samizdat of Soviet Russia. Instead of using the threat of “terrorists” to establish state tyranny, Little’s America blames the Ku Klux Klan.
Little Brother is also a little more sanguine than David Q. Little. The State of California comes to the rescue in a deus ex machina—asserting the Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights. It is impossible to imagine the current ruthless, overfed government of California doing that. That is probably the least believable part of the novel, but it does appeal to a sense of the Creator-endowed unalienable rights.
Little Brother is an entertaining story. It is one of those tales of which we have to say, “It could happen here,” but we pray that it doesn’t.
The author is a Canadian who has lived in the United States and England as well. Each chapter of Little Brother begins with a tribute to a bookstore—usually ones that carry Doctorow’s work or have a solid science fiction section. These tributes plus a nostalgia for sixities radicals give the impression that Doctorow is some kind of bicoastal yuppie. But anyone who likes On the Road must have some contact with the real world.