I loved, loved, loved Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, and I want to put a copy in everyone’s hands. On one hand, it’s a story about a teenage boy who’s good with computers and who gets in big trouble with the Department of Homeland Security after a major terrorist event. On the other hand, it’s a wake up call to everyone who lives in an America shaped by both rapid technological progress, and state-encouraged Orwell-grade paranoia. Confession: for a long time I wouldn’t read this book because I was afraid it would turn out to be a book I wish I could have written, and, not only that, but a book I knew I could have written better. Another confession: Little Brother is very much a book I wish I could have written, but I’m glad Doctorow did because he did a much better job than I could have done.
There is so much to love about this book, but if I had to pick one thing above all the others, I would have to point to its brilliant and unrepentant optimism. I think this book is a book to get kids thinking about the world they live in, what privacy means, what it means to trade off security for liberty, and lots of other immediately relevant to everyone’s day to day experience. I am frightened and outraged almost daily by the excesses of a watchful and fear-mongering state apparatus, and its made me pessimistic. All the different ways that we daily surrender our privacy in ways we know about but allow, and in ways we would be shocked to learn, these all make me pessimistic too. But then this book came along and it’s telling the next generation: “You don’t have to play the game their way, you can make your own rules, you’re smart and creative, and you can run circles around the bad guys. What kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of world do you want to make?” I think this book is a powerful tool to empower critical thought, and has the potential to ignite a lot of sparks in the imagination of young minds, trying to feel their way through a world my generation cannot imagine growing up in. I don’t think you can attempt to do that, without an unflagging optimism that humans are good and that life can be better.
But that’s not all I like. I like how the book is au courant without being condescending. It has a good ear for the language and concerns of a younger generation, and never strays into using that language for didacticism or demagoguery. In fact, another thing I love about it is the very subtle but very smart way it exposes the blind sides and weaknesses of demagogues. Marcus, the main character, gets frustrated by the same propaganda I do, and, even better, he has to confront it in people he cares about and respects. Some people are on Marcus’ side, some people aren’t, and the world is very realistically gray, without many blacks and whites.
The world doesn’t lack black and white though, either, and neither does Marcus’ world. There are instances and moments in Little Brother where wrongdoing is clearly happening, and there are people whose actions are clearly villainous, and there are times when bad actions are not met with punishment, and the evil get off scott free. This matches my own experience of life: there’s a lot of gray, but there are things that are just clearly wrong, and those are the things we have oppose, sometimes at great personal expense.
Whenever I read young adult titles, books for teenagers about teenagers, I keep one critical eye out for how it treats sexuality. I know adult sexuality is hard to write about, and I know it’s harder and more fraught with danger for an adult to write about teenage sexuality, to the point where it’s tempting to avoid it altogether, but I also know that sexuality is such an unignorable part of being a teenager in America today, you can’t really write honestly and also ignore altogether. It’s quite a bind, and I watch for how authors handle it, and I think Doctorow does a great job. I think he pulls it off with flying colors. It’s in there, and it doesn’t distract, and it’s realistic and honest in it’s own particular and poignant way.
Ok, you know what, I take it back. The BEST thing about Little Brother is that I now have a list, still growing, of things to do to learn about and safeguard my own privacy, and especially my digital privacy. Anyone else with similar interests, Surveillance Self-Defense an online workbook from the EFF, is an awesome place to start: it lists what the state has a right to on your computer, on the network, and on 3rd party servers, and what it doesn’t have a right to, and how to protect what’s yours and yours alone.
I never thought much what I can do, today, now, to protect myself from an overly intrusive state, but, after reading Little Brother, I understand much better how important doing just that is to the entire proposition of liberty. Now I understand why there are constitutional protections for it, and now I understand much better what happens if we are lax in our vigilance against tyranny. This increase in understanding is, I think, part of why Little Brother exists, so I applaud with great zeal its terrific success in doing exactly what it sets out to do, with aplomb, humor, irreverence and that quirky, charming brilliance that infuses so much of what Doctorow sets loose the world.