Takeaway: Protection from terrorism means protection of freedoms
Little Brother is classic Cory Doctorow. Doctorow is a science fiction writer/free speech advocate/teacher/activist. He has has worked for the Electronic Freedom Foundation, is one of the founders of Boing Boing. I have read several of his science fiction books and short stories. Doctorow is known for his advocacy of free. He has all of his books available for free download if you want to read it electronically. I see now that he allows donations for the free books. I disagreed with his earlier stance of not accepting donation because he wanted people to buy paper copies. I, and many others, don’t want paper copies, we want digital copies and he had no way to accept income from people that wanted to support his writing. He also protested against Amazon’s DRM scheme and refused to allow his books on Amazon, but has relented now that Amazon allows for DRM free versions of books if the authors choose.
Little Brother is Doctorow’s first young adult book. Doctorow usually writes near-term science fiction. So he takes ideas or technology that is just breaking and writes about it as it it has taken off. One of his books is about GPS systems that have taken over all driving and people have lost the ability to drive, then the system goes a little nuts (ala Hal in 2001).
Little Brother is about the results of a major terrorist attack in San Francisco. The main character, Marcus, and some of his high school friends were in the wrong place at the wrong time and picked up by Department of Homeland Security after the attack. Marcus and his friends because they are computer geeks and were playing a live action role playing game were suspicious and did not cooperate to the satisfaction of the DHS officers and were moved to a secure holding facility. After six days of interrogation and isolation they were released and told never to reveal where they were or else they would be arrested again.
This leads to a paranoid construction of secure intranet system to fight DHS. DHS over-reacts and starts significantly violating basic civil liberties in the name of terrorism prevention. Basically think the Patriot Act on steroids. While occasionally far-fetched, I think that the basic premise of the books is possible Doctorow’s discussion of civil liberties, privacy, the over-reach of government and unintended consequences really are worth reading.
On the other hand, Doctorow can wander into propaganda writing. He starts monologuing about the Declaration of Independence or privacy laws or civil liberties. It is all basically in line with what is going on in the book, but like some Christian fiction, the message can occasionally over-take the storyline. The other issue is that like some other science fiction writers, dialogue and character development are less important than the basic story line and ideas, so people and conversations occasionally get a little wooden. That is not to say it is bad writing, just that I do not think he is going to win a Nobel Prize for literature, maybe for Peace, but not literature.
My timing of reading it does make it a bit more interesting. There are large scale civil disobedience actions in the book that are shorter term, but probably no more dangerous than the Occupy Oakland rallies. The police response in the real Occupy Oakland used tear gas and rubber bullets. Several people were seriously injured including one veteran that is in a medically induced coma after being hit with a tear gas canister in the head and then a second canister was thrown at the group that was trying to help the man. it is eerily similar to the response in Little Brother. There was also a report by EFF on the Patriot Act and how the FBI has rarely used many of the provisions for terrorism as they were intended. Even the FBI’s own internal monitoring has said that there have been significant abuses of the national security letters for non-terrorism related investigations. The FBI’s recent problems around training also highlight the problems of racial, ethnic and religious profiling. Little Brother is a call to arms, there is are several afterwards by a computer security experts that calls people to understand security, privacy, hacking and national security. This is not a message that is politically left or right, it is message about political and social freedom.
This is a young adult oriented book, but older teen, not younger. It can be a bit heady at times and it has some sex mild scenes and strong language that while not inappropriate to the book will not be to everyone’s taste.
If you are a computer geek, like science fiction, are over 15 and have ever thought about the problems of privacy or government overreach, you really should pick up this book. I checked it out of the library on audiobook. It is well narrated, but not Doctorow reading. I have listened to Doctorow read, and while he is not a bad reader, this was probably a better narrator.