Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Reviewed by Farah Mendlesohn

Little Brother cover

On Tuesday 19th February, The Guardian reported on a civil rights suit being taken against the makers of "the mosquito," a device which emits a buzz at high pitch that only the under-twenties can hear, and which is being used to drive away teenagers from certain sites. In a throwaway line at the end of the article, The Guardian also revealed that the same inventor has produced a disguised digital camera for schools to replace discredited CCTV, in order to protect teachers from their pupils. Already teens are turning the mosquito buzz into a ringtone so that they can evade mobile phone bans; I suspect in a year or two we'll hear how the classroom camera has failed. That, at least, is one of the lessons which we can learn from Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. However intense the surveillance, there is nothing that adults can come up with that better technologically acclimatised children and teens cannot evade. They can and will reprogramme your TiVo.

Little Brother begins when Marcus (aka w1n5t0n) leads his friends out from school during class time to play in a worldwide treasure hunt, tailored to local areas—in his case, San Francisco. Just as he is being forced to back off by a rival team, the earth shakes, sirens go off, and it becomes clear that something major has happened. Marcus and his friends Van, Jolu, and Darryl initially seek shelter in the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART), but when it becomes clear there will be a major crush, they head out. On the way out Darryl is stabbed. Unable to get through to the emergency services, they flag down one of the army jeeps. It's here the terror starts.

San Francisco has been invaded by the Department for Homeland Security. These people are professionally paranoid. Anyone in the area at the time of what turns out to be an attack on the Bay Bridge and the BART is under suspicion, so the four teens are bundled up and taken to a "facility." There, Marcus makes the "mistake" of trying to hold on to his privacy, refusing to unlock his phone and his email. In retaliation he is beaten, starved, and isolated. Eventually he breaks. When he, Van, and Jolu are finally released it is with the knowledge that they are being watched, and worse, that if they even tell their parents where they have been, they risk being Disappeared. Terrified, in shock, they stagger home, slowly registering that Darryl is still missing, that they don't know where he is or if he is still alive. There, they discover that many thousands of San Franciscans died on the bridge, in the power outages, or on the BART.

Little Brother, however, is not a book about a disaster; it's a book about how people respond, as people, to disaster and fear, and in particular how quickly paranoia descends. While Marcus's mother remains a cynic, his father turns into one of the left wing hawks who went all gung ho about invading Iraq. Oblivious to the evidence, he strives to justify every infringement of civil liberties—at least until he becomes a target. In school, the already close surveillance steps up a notch, and both teachers and pupils come under pressure to conform to a particular interpretation of American "life." As Marcus emerges from shock, his resentment at the increased harassment—the stops and searches, the awareness that every electronic thing he owns is being used to track him, and his discovery that his laptop (home assembled) is bugged—hardens, fuelled further by his inability to find out what happened to Darryl and the sense that any efforts in that direction will themselves attract a response from the now ubiquitous DHS. So Marcus goes on the offensive.

The suspicion and distrust of America's teens which anyone who has had anything to do with US high schools can't help but notice has created of their world an open prison. But Marcus is, at the age of seventeen, more than comfortable in the world of electronics and the Internet. When he and his friends evade school on the day of the disaster, they don't do it by jumping a wall: they disable cameras, change their gait to avoid the gait recognition system, and fry the tracking strip in a library book to ensure that their absence won't register. Marcus and his friends—like many teens—have long been involved in a war with the people who claim to protect them but cannot explain from what.

Marcus has assembled his own laptop. He is active on the net and is already reasonably well known as a hacker. When Marcus mobilises he becomes the imp in the Internet: with the help of a "Paranoid X-Box," and the networking made possible by mobile phones and the Internet, Marcus leads a passive resistance campaign in which IDs are swapped. All good so far. What lifts Doctorow's book head and shoulders above most other books that follow a "tyranny happens, let's resist it" plot is the manner of delivery.

As some people know, as part of an ongoing research project I've spent the past five years reading every science fiction book written for the Young Adult market I can get my hands on. It's not been an entirely happy experience. In most of the books I've read there is an absence of any political complexity, and in particular, an inattention to the way the world works. Perhaps worse, there has been an utter failure to address what I have always thought of as one of the key factors that make an SF book an SF book, that at the end of it, the reader has learned something. This something can be about genetics, strategy in a military mission, the nature of beetle sexuality—I really and truly don't care—but I have always regarded SF as a didactic literature and regarded that didacticism as a good thing, yet most YA SF novels lack it (even when they simultaneously promote a political viewpoint such as science is bad, it will destroy the planet, focus on your mystical abilities). Little Brother, however, is fiercely, unashamedly didactic. Doctorow revels in what he has set out to do, which is simply to place in the hands of every school child a manual which could be subtitled "how to bring down your government and enjoy doing it." The first time I read it I was on a flight to the US, and while I became increasingly concerned that this might have been a Very Bad Idea, I also sort of hoped customs might find the book because it is inflammatory. In UK terms, it most definitely Glorifies Terrorism.

Our very first introduction to Marcus tells us in intimate detail about the surveillance he has to deal with, from a bugged and limited SchoolBook computer through to metal detectors and in-class recording. Every key he taps is being analysed by someone, somewhere. Marcus also tells us, in detail, how to evade this surveillance. When his campaign gets going, Marcus leads us through the history of cryptography, of statistical analysis and spam filters (a page on Bayesian analysis), helps us (if we want) to build our own computers and know what to look for if we want to learn basic programming. Just to demonstrate that geekdom does not mean disassociation, we also get several seminars on classroom discussion of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the psychology of paranoia. Further along we learn how social networking can be adapted as a political tool, and how to create revolutionary cells with peer-to-peer security. There are also some fierce warnings about what kind of information not to give on the Internet and why.

Privacy versus security is central to the argument of the book, and Doctorow offers a distinction between the two which I am still pondering. He suggests that privacy is individual, with no implications of power over anyone else. Secrecy, in emulation of the old formula ("power + prejudice = racism") can then be framed as power + privacy = secrecy. Secrecy is what you do to others; it is withholding information or demanding access to another's privacy, or demanding of others that they keep "private" something you have done to them. Doctorow, through Marcus, rigorously explores this dividing line, carefully explaining how to preserve the one, and why the other is so dangerous. In this it is a very modern book: Marcus realises late on that the most powerful thing that the regime has done to him is to make him scared to speak of what was done to him. Breach that, and their power unravels.

Little Brother is not a light-hearted book. Many of the "pro-revolution" YA books I've read in the past few years go from resistance to victory without really passing through pain and sacrifice. In the course of this book Marcus and his friends, and others they don't know of, are tortured, and each time Marcus comes up against the mentality that official suspicion must rest on something, that people must have done something or they wouldn't be in trouble. Marcus has to deal with betrayal from some of the adults in his life, and the discovery that not all his friends can or will follow him. He learns some hard truths about his own privileged position as he realises that this war against youth is also a war against non-whites. He discovers that the America he understood as historical is not a consensus, that there is no consensus America, only one that has been bitterly contested time after time and is safe only if people fight for it to be safe. Even his victory will be partial, as he discovers that there is no way he is going to be allowed to think of himself as wholly innocent.

Cory Doctorow is already a very well-known author, but this is by far his best book yet. Little Brother hosts a careful and accreted argument, not all of which I agree with and (looking at the degree to which so many of my students have dispensed with privacies my generation take for granted) not all of which I suspect matters to teens (but the generational differences and understandings of these relationships are also an element of the argument). In other words, it is a polemical book, and all the better for it. In the past I've regarded Doctorow as very much an ideas mill, without the bite that makes a really fine writer. Little Brother—angry at the way we regard the young, intolerant of America's and Britain's historical intolerance to its own youth—has all the bite and passion one could need.


Farah Mendlesohn edited Foundation for six years. She blogs at The Inter-Galactic Playground, and her book Rhetorics of Fantasy is forthcoming in April.