Monday, January 26, 2009

Cory Doctorow: Little Brother

Cory Doctorow's Little Brother is a fun, modern, flashy, but stark warning in the vein of Lewis' classic It Can't Happen Here. Like MacLeod's The Execution Channel from last year, it takes place in the current anti-terror climate, but Doctorow focuses more on the consequences and costs of the resulting repression and shows how we (or at least those with a connection to technology and time on their hands, meaning smart high school kids) might fight back.

Doctorow even has an afterword from Bruce Schneier and a bibliography to underline the fact that technologies for privacy are available and urging people to do more to prepare for the resistance now. Since I can attest that all the technology in the book is either available or easily developed, the book has to be placed in the future history category to qualify as science fiction. It has been nominated for this year's Prometheus and I'd have to say it's the best candidate I've read so far.

The story is told from the point of view of a small group of teenagers in San Francisco who are imprisoned by DHS in a general sweep after a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge and BART tunnel. Once they are released, they (principally Marcus Yallow, a hacker and LARP player) work to undermine the terrorist state and build tools that their friends can use to communicate privately and organize out of the government's sight. There are enough details about what tools they build and what systems they compromise to serve as an outline for budding hackers who aren't sure how to fight back. These details occasionally intrude into the story in the form of Marcus explaining things to his audience, but I think readers for whom they aren't obvious will take it as necessary background.

The story also shows clearly how torture can come about, and without taking their viewpoint makes the actions and motivations of the guards and torturers believable. Marcus and his friends react to their harsh imprisonment in a variety of ways, just as the people on the outside react to the increasing repression differently. It's not surprising that kids in school (who are used to hiding some of their activities from their parents and teachers) adapt readily to using surreptitious means to hide from DHS as well.

The story doesn't have a young-adult feel; even though the protagonists are mainly teenagers, the story is told with an adult sensibility. Being youngsters, Doctorow has plenty of opportunity to show them growing intellectually and emotionally. The characters are well filled out, and have appropriate conflicts that drive the story. The story is exciting and well motivated. Marcus starts working with a journalist early enough in the story that her role in the denouement isn't a surprise. And compared to the Queen's similar role in Walton's Half a Crown, it seems completely plausible.

I really enjoyed this book. It had some of the flavor of Vinge's Fast Times at Fairmont High, without being as far ahead of the curve, and gave an exciting depiction of the fight against an enveloping tyranny (harking back to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) along with a concrete vision of how and why we'd fight back set in an all-too-plausible near future.

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