The fates seemed to decree that I wouldn’t review Little Brother. First of all, it’s shelved under "young adult" — not an appealing category for me. Second, I was unable to contact Tor Teen’s marketing people to secure a comp copy. Finally, it seemed overhyped. Did people pretend to like the book because they liked Cory Doctorow or because it had gotten rave reviews? Nope, wasn’t gonna happen. Nevertheless, a few months after the release I ended up buying the book and reading it.
Dude — am I ever glad I did.
The story is set in the near future, with an unnamed (but Dubya-like) president enjoying his third term and cruising toward a fourth by keeping the population afraid of terrorism. After an attack blows up San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, the Department of Homeland Security clamps down tight, tracking the citizenry with RFID tags, gait recognition scanners and advanced data modeling software. They set up a secret prison on Treasure Island to torture and interrogate suspects and undesirables.
The book’s hero finds himself opposing the DHS after being caught on the post-attack dragnet. After sassing an interrogator, he’s subjected to brutal and invasive grilling that leaves him shaken and paranoid. Even better, he becomes adamant that he’s going to subvert and fight the DHS for the sake of his country. The political story is timely and important, but the real meat of the book is in the technical details. Doctorow touches on real world phenomena like RFID spoofing, cryptography, the EFF, and so on while only occasionally employing fictional technologies and exploits.
The X on the front cover comes from the Xnet, the teen heroes’ subversive computer network. The storyline assumes that in the future, Microsoft dominates the game console market by releasing free Xboxes and then charging for games. The story’s heroes load a fictional open source operating system called ParanoidLinux on these Xboxes to create a subversive network.
Paranoid Linux is an operating system that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government (it was intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents), and it does everything it can to keep your communications and documents a secret. It even throws up a bunch of "chaff" communications that are supposed to disguise the fact that you’re doing anything covert. So while you’re receiving a political message one character at a time, ParanoidLinux is pretending to surf the Web and fill in questionnaires and flirt in chat-rooms. Meanwhile, one in every five hundred characters you receive is your real message, a needle buried in a huge haystack.
Interestingly, ParanoidLinux may have been fiction when Doctorow wrote Little Brother but inspired by the book, people are working to develop the OS for real.
In the book, a character gets waterboarded. The scene is graphic and awful. The smug DHS interrogator humiliates and tortures her victim. Some readers might be offended at the sinister depiction of U.S. authorities. Certainly, the post-attack paranoia, ham-fisted law enforcement and intrusive domestic surveillance would have seemed garishly improbable before 9/11. Guess what? Such phenomena as extra-territorial prisons, waterboarding, renditions and warrantless wiretapping are in place today, albeit mainly overseas. Doctorow convincingly posits that a second 9/11-style attack would have brought those methods here as well.
So why Young Adult? Couldn’t this story have just as easily been told with adult protagonists? Maybe skip all of the awkward first kisses and bashful groping?
The book is written for young adults, I am convinced, not because the subject matter is immature but because kids need to know this stuff. The book teaches survival skills in the digital age, in a time when the country flirts with paranoia and totalitarianism. Our citizens are willingly giving up their rights "because they have nothing to hide," not realizing they will never get them back again.
Little Brother is at once a warning against a dark future, along with a training manual for defeating that darkness if it occurs.
Previously, on the GeekDad Blog: