Summary: Fast-paced and exciting but trips over its own good intentions. An uncomfortable blurring of truth with fiction detracts from an otherwise important message.
What happens if the co-editor of a popular blog like Boing Boing decides to write a novel gathering together his favourite posts and concerns from said blog? Answer: You get a fun, suitably paranoid page-turner called Little Brother.
Little Brother (LB) reads like a novelisation of the more sinister “see how the Government is raping our freedom this time” pieces on Boing Boing. If the masses are truly victims of their Government or the local council’s petty surveillance-obsessed mania, sometimes it pays to stand before the omnipresent CCTV camera and be counted. And this is where Little Brother fits in.
The book is a Young Adult novel, i.e. aimed at impressionable teenagers. It’s set just slightly in the future, making it technically science fiction, though it isn’t labelled as such – clearly a deliberate effort to keep it mainstream. The main character, Marcus Yallow, self-titled in the l33t alphabet as “w1n5t0n”, skives off from school with some friends. Together they are apprehended by the DHS (Department of Homeland Security, nothing to do with sofas and comfy chairs [or is that DFS], unless their interrogation has a Spanish Inquisition angle – but moving on...) and held as possible terrorists because of their suspicious behaviour. Marcus is eventually released, only to find that his hometown of San Francisco has become a police state following the bridge bombing that led to his arrest in the first place. And so he begins to fight back against the DFS, sorry DHS, using technology and youthful, David vs Goliath naiveté.
The real-world message is obvious: This book is fiction, but it might as well be real. As the book’s author Cory Doctorow says (of current reality) in the Introduction:
“What's more, kids were clearly being used as guinea-pigs for a new kind of technological state that all of us were on our way to, a world where taking a picture was either piracy (in a movie theater or museum or even a Starbucks), or terrorism (in a public place), but where we could be photographed, tracked and logged hundreds of times a day by every tin-pot dictator, cop, bureaucrat and shop-keeper. A world where any measure, including torture, could be justified just by waving your hands and shouting "Terrorism! 9/11! Terrorism!" until all dissent fell silent.”
Quite often the book drops out of narrative form and segues into an essay on some aspect of the futility of automatic terrorism detectors or the fundamentals of public key encryption, man-in-the-middle attacks, tunnelling video over DNS, and numerous other geek-heavy subjects that might get some mainstream readers wondering when the kids are going to start talking about relationships again, e.g.:
“But what about Dad's "Bayesian statistics?" I'd played with Bayesian math before. Darryl and I once tried to write our own better spam filter and when you filter spam, you need Bayesian math. Thomas Bayes was an 18th century British mathematician that no one cared about until a couple hundred years after he died, when computer scientists realized that his technique for statistically analyzing mountains of data would be super-useful for the modern world's info-Himalayas.
Here's some of how Bayesian stats work...”
This is all good and interesting stuff, but in any other sf novel (except anything by Neal Stephenson, obviously), this amount of exposition on its technological backdrop would be panned as infodump. Neal Stephenson only gets away with this style because lengthy digressions into geeklore are what his books are all about: he revels in the details. Conversely, in LB these admittedly fascinating segues fit awkwardly like author notes that haven’t yet been fully woven into the narrative. On the plus side, they’re mostly essential to the plot so you never feel as if Doctorow is being overly self-indulgent.
When reading LB it’s easy to forget that, because it’s science fiction, some of the situations it depicts aren’t yet real: e.g. Microsoft obviously hasn’t yet decided to take such a hit on each Xbox sale that they’re now literally giving them away; and motion sensing gait detectors aren’t installed in schools (yet).
Some of these fictional events may happen soon, or they may never come true, or they might happen even sooner, and in more bizarre or nightmarish ways, than we can currently imagine. In true sf style, Doctorow takes today’s technology/views/culture/opinions/policies, and extrapolates them to see where they might soon end up. Just as with Orwell’s 1984, LB is a warning of what may be: but what makes this book scarier than 1984 is its immediacy. The nightmarish scenarios seem plausible and have that feel of being just around the corner, if not already here.
But because of this immediacy, the book walks an uneasy line between dark truth and fiction exaggerated to illustrate that truth; e.g.:
“They've got laws [in the UK] that would curl the hair on your toes: they can put you in jail for an entire year if they're really sure that you're a terrorist but don't have enough evidence to prove it. Now, how sure can they be if they don't have enough evidence to prove it? How'd they get that sure? Did they see you committing terrorist acts in a really vivid dream?”
Whoah, hang on there! Yes it’s good to be concerned about the proposed (and thankfully recently defeated, for now) 42-day detention provision of the Counter-Terrorism Bill, but let’s not get too carried away getting the message across. Oh wait though, this is science fiction, so we can say it’s “an entire year”. A little untruth makes the message all the more powerful, after all.
Many readers will doubtless blur the line between truth and fiction though, e.g. this enthusiastic blogger does just that:
“What is amazing about this book (to regular tech people) is that all the technology info is true. This is not a weird science fiction post apocalyptic story-it takes placs [sic] now with real things. I got so so angry while reading this story...”
Therefore it’s important to take the book with a grain of salt: difficult as it’s aimed at a highly impressionable audience. Being a YA novel, LB is clearly designed to appeal to the sensitive teen crowd who are going through that period of delicate soul-searching, shaping their identity. Lucky that it has such an important message to tell, then! If LB can truly catch the “yoofs” at that plastic phase and mould a little paranoia into their setting minds, it stands a chance of producing a new generation of young adults who are a bit more cynical about the world they live in, a little less willing to accept the steady erosion of their civil liberties as simply “the way countries are run”.
The manner in which UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s opinion-harvesting site for young-’uns was dogged by “overwhelmingly negative comments” regarding the National Identity Scheme does suggest that there’s already some healthy cynicism in the youngsters of today. But there’s still definitely a place for LB, a void for it to fill.
As is always the case with Doctorow’s books, LB can be downloaded for “free” (under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license, if that clears up any confusion) in a multitude of different formats to suit your favourite ebook reading gadget, smartphone or whatever. This is lucky, because in the UK, the dead-tree version was surprisingly tricky to get hold of for a long time after the book’s release. Even now, walk into any bookstore (at least the ones I tried) and you likely won’t see it. It’s now available on amazon.co.uk, having been picked up by HarperCollins UK, but (and this is probably a personal preference), the UK cover just seems way inferior to the US edition’s.
Regardless of which edition or format you go for, Little Brother is an important book; it tells a sobering message in a cheery, accessible style. In the same way that Douglas Coupland’s Generation X captured the prevalent optimistic, hopeful mood of young adults in the early Nineties, Little Brother captures the understandably distrustful, authority-shy mood of the current new generation of adults.
I should also mention that the book is highly enjoyable; despite its infodump moments, it works as a compelling, emotionally loaded page-turner.
Personally I downloaded a copy and read it via Mobipocket on my mobile phone while commuting on a packed train into London, all the while (it afterwards struck me) being filmed by a discreetly placed surveillance camera in one corner of the carriage. It's scary how you just get used to these things.