Mar 16, 2009

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

This book is meant to be part of the conversation about what an information society means: does it mean total control, or unheard-of liberty? It's not just a noun, it's a verb, it's something you do.
From the Introduction
Seventeen-year-old Marcus Yallow is a proud computer geek. He and his best friends, Darryl, Vanessa and Jolu, are part of a team that plays a game called Harajuku Fun Madness. Marcus’ computer skills have allowed him to find ways to counter his highschool's security system, so he convinces Darryl to skip school, meet the rest of the team, and investigate a new lead in the game before the other teams beat them to it.

But the four are unfortunately caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is a terrorist attack that day that destroys the San Francisco Bay Bridge and the BART tunnel, and Marcus and his friends are arrested by the Depart of Homeland Security. After three horrifying days under custody, where he is asked questions he doesn’t have an answer for again and again, and where he is forced to surrender his privacy, Marcus is released. So are Jolu and Vanessa, but there are no news of Darryl. And the three are ordered to never speak of what happened to them. Or else.

Marcus is understandably terrified. He makes up an excuse about his absence to his parents, who had assumed he had been killed in the attacks, and he remains quiet. But as time passes, he begins to realize he cannot stand being muzzled. He cannot stand seeing San Francisco become a police state, where citizens are treated like criminal suspects every day. So using his computer skills, he begins to fight back.

I adored Little Brother. It’s such a smart, engrossing and inspiring book. It’s a story about a group of teenagers who think and care and question things, and then go off and do something about it. It’s about not being powerless—not letting others make you feel powerless, because that’s how they win. It’s about social change, but it’s not an idealist’s dream. Change does happen, but Marcus and his friends and allies run a lot of risks, and there are costs. There are also people in positions of power getting away with horrible things, and we’ve all seen that happen often enough.

Little Brother takes a lot of questions head on—questions that might be difficult, but are undeniably relevant in the contemporary world. The story is set in the near future, but it’s a near future that could be tomorrow—that could perhaps be today. One of the things the story shows is that exchanging privacy for security doesn’t even necessarily guarantee security. After all, a group of teenagers manages to successfully dodge the DHS for months.

Another thing I loved was how the story is grounded in history: Marcus’ social studies teacher tells the class about the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s and 70’s, especially what took place in the Bay Area. And Marcus makes connections between what was fought for then and what he’s fighting for now. He reads On the Road and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and the link he feels to his city gives him extra strength to continue to fight for it to become a free place again. How I wish my social studies and history teachers in high school had encouraged those kinds of connection. We can't be reminded too often that history is not irrelevant for our lives.

There was a scene in the book that literally sent shivers down my spine: the concert at Dolores Park, with thousands of people under 25 screaming “take it back” (their city, their freedom) in unison. Very often we hear about how young people are politically apathetic, and sadly voter turnout rates for people aged 18-25 in many countries show that this is not untrue. But it’s not entirely true either: a lot of young people out there are smart and passionate. And they care. The concert scene (or the first half of it anyway—read the book to find out what happens in the second half) was powerful and energizing and actually kind of moving.

This is a book that celebrates geekdom, and we can never have too many of those. I’m a humanities geek myself, but I’ve always had a lot of respect for techno geeks, and after reading this book, I have even more.

And best of all, Little Brother taught me things! I learned about cryptography, about spam filters and Bayesian math. I learned to question the “hackers=bad” assumption. If you have a security system, you actually want a smart kid to finds its failings. Because that’s now you make it better. It made me want to learn a programming language and stay up all night programming my computer. A lot of the technology used in Little Brother is current, and the bits that aren’t feel like something that could be developed very soon. That’s part of what makes the book feel so immediate. In fact, according to Wikipedia, a ParanoidLinux operating system is now in the works. How cool is that?

You can download Little Brother for free here. Each chapter of the e-book version is dedicated to a different bookstore, which is nothing short of awesome.

Memorable passages:
There's something really liberating about having some corner of your life that's yours, that no one gets to see except you. It's a little like nudity or taking a dump. Everyone gets naked every once in a while. Everyone has to squat on the toilet. There's nothing shameful, deviant or weird about either of them. But what if I decreed that from now on, every time you went to evacuate some solid waste, you'd have to do it in a glass room perched in the middle of Times Square, and you'd be buck naked?
Even if you've got nothing wrong or weird with your body -- and how many of us can say that? -- you'd have to be pretty strange to like that idea. Most of us would run screaming. Most of us would hold it in until we exploded.
It's not about doing something shameful. It's about doing something private. It's about your life belonging to you.

"There's something else," he said.
"I wasn't going to mention it, but I want you to understand why I have to do this."
"Jesus, Jolu, what?"
"I hate to say it, but you're white. I'm not. White people get caught with cocaine and do a little rehab time. Brown people get caught with crack and go to prison for twenty years. White people see cops on the street and feel safer. Brown people see cops on the street and wonder if they're about to get searched. The way the DHS is treating you? The law in this country has always been like that for us."
It was so unfair. I didn't ask to be white. I didn't think I was being braver just because I'm white. But I knew what Jolu was saying. If the cops stopped someone in the Mission and asked to see some ID, chances were that person wasn't white. Whatever risk I ran, Jolu ran more. Whatever penalty I'd pay, Jolu would pay more.
"I don't know what to say," I said.
"You don't have to say anything," he said. "I just wanted you to know, so you could understand."

I've always loved just learning stuff for its own sake. Just to be smarter about the world around me. I could do that just by walking around the city. I decided I'd do an English paper about the Beats first. City Lights books had a great library in an upstairs room where Alan Ginsberg and his buddies had created their radical druggy poetry. The one we'd read in English class was Howl and I would never forget the opening lines, they gave me shivers down my back:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...

I liked the way he ran those words all together, "starving hysterical naked." I knew how that felt. And "best minds of my generation" made me think hard too. It made me remember the park and the police and the gas falling. They busted Ginsberg for obscenity over Howl -- all about a line about gay sex that would hardly have caused us to blink an eye today. It made me happy somehow, knowing that we'd made some progress. That things had been even more restrictive than this before.

“I can't go underground for a year, ten years, my whole life, waiting for freedom to be handed to me. Freedom is something you have to take for yourself.”
And on On the Road:
There was a rhythm to the words, it was luscious, I could hear it being read aloud in my head. It made me want to lie down in the bed of a pickup truck and wake up in a dusty little town somewhere in the central valley on the way to LA, one of those places with a gas station and a diner, and just walk out into the fields and meet people and see stuff and do stuff.
Yes, yes, YES.

Other Opinion:
Becky’s Book Reviews
Maw Books
Bending Bookshelf
Superfast Reader
Bookshelves of Doom
Fantasy Book Critic
Fyrefly's Book Blog

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. Thanks for a great review on a book I might well have overlooked!

  2. Cool am off to check out the free download. It might be something more suited to Alex, will run your review by him tonight thanks. I do love the celebration of all things geek though :)

  3. Like I said awhile back, my 8 year old son read this recently, and while he seemed to have gotten the main plot points, I'm not sure he really understood this book. It sounds really good. I think I'm going to have to add it to my list! Yet another one...sigh...

  4. I tried reading this via DailyLit but quickly fell behind and had to give up. I'll have to try again later, since I enjoyed what I did manage to read. Nice review!

  5. Do you ever just want to cry because there's so many incredible books out there, and you just can't get to them all fast enough? I'm in that weepy mood right now. I've actually owned this one for a while now (had to buy it after Becky's review), but still haven't got to it. *sigh*

  6. This review was absolutely smashing!! I downloaded the book last week after you featured e-books on your blog. I can't wait to read this , especially because it shows teens being proactive about a cause they feel so passionate about!!

  7. Can you please stop reading such fabulous books. My TBR list has grown so much since I came on your site. Great review - download now on my PC.

  8. That sounds like a powerful book. It would be freaky for me, to read a book about a city I lived in and loved, turning into a terrorized police state! But fascinating, too.

  9. My husband and son read and loved this book, and have been after me to read it as well. I think I will pick it up. Great review btw!

  10. Glad you enjoyed this. Doctorow gave a lot of thanks to Scott Westerfield, and it made me curious to read some of Westerfield's books.

  11. I LOVED this book. Seems like a current Malaysia in some ways, not future US (their DHS is like a copy of our ISA).

  12. YAY to geekdom!

    You see, I am on a book ban now (I know, I know, I should probably quit 'singing' about this already) so I'm going to have to just put this into my ever growing wish list. Thank you, Ana! :)

  13. For some reason, I had been avoiding reviews of this book..I guess it's because I wanted to go into it not knowing anything...but I read your review :p And now I want to read it even more! It sounds even better than I thought it would be!

  14. Great review, Nymeth! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book. I don't think I've read anything relating to geekdom so I might want to check this out. :)

  15. Another comment like all my others - sounds great, it's on my list! :-) I actually downloaded this already so it's waiting patiently for me.

  16. This sounds like a great read. And I can confirm, as someone who spent five years in Internet security, that it's very true that all hackers are not bad...we have to break things in order to know how to fix them, and to know what other people are doing!

    And about losing our freedom: I am amazed at how much people are willing to give things up, things they think are "small," for the idea of security. Every time I see people in line at the airport, standing in line in their socks and clutching their plastic bags of toiletries, I get angry all over again!

    Oh dear. Sorry for that rant. *blushes* Great review!

  17. You've convinced me. I really enjoyed my first dip into Doctorow, and this sounds like the perfect follow-up book.

  18. I'll definitely be giving this one a go.

  19. Jenclair, I hope you enjoy it! And from what I know of your taste, I think you will.

    Rhinoa: It's suited to Alex AND you! You'll see :P

    Amanda: It might be something he'll appreciate even more as he gets older, but I think it's awesome that he read it so young!

    Bibliolatrist: I can only use Dailylit for short stories or poetry, I've found. Anything else and I also fall behind.

    Debi: I do. Daily :(

    Staci, thank you so much! And I thought that was great too. We need more stories about that.

    Scrap Girl: No, I can't, for I need fabulous books. They're my preciouuuuus :P

    Jeane: Despite all the terrible things that happen, the book really made me want to visit San Francisco! It seems to be a city with a feel of its own. It's one of my top places to go to if I ever visit the US (the others being New York and New Orleans).

    Zibilee, thank you! I hope you enjoy it.

  20. Charley: I read my first Westerfeld recently and I loved it! Now I want to get So Yesterday, which I think he mentions specifically in the thank you notes.

    Marineko: You bring up a good point...there are parts of the world where this kind of surveillance is already real.

    Alice: yay indeed :D Ah, book buying wonders how long it'll last :P

    Chris, this is seriously right up your alley! It was better than I thought it'd be too, and I expected it to be great.

    Melody: That must change, you know...we can't have you living a geek-less life :P

    Joanna, I hope you enjoy it!

    Priscilla, don't apologize! This is exactly the kind of conversation this book's about. I'm amazed too. I mean, I understand fear, and I understand wanting to me safe. But privacy is sacred for me. Freedom is sacred. I don't understand giving them up without a second thought.

    Memory and booktrash, enjoy! I look forward to both your reviews.

  21. I have this book here to read! I haven't got to it yet, though, because I apparently have five books due back on the 19th... I honestly don't think I can read five books in two days! The weekend really screwed me up, I guess!

    I am reading Powers right now...

  22. This isn't something that I would normally run out and grab, but your passion for the book and topics has made me think otherwise--the history lessons, the concert and unity, the programming (hmmm...maybe not the last one as much). So many people that I know don't vote because they think it doesn't really matter. Sometimes I think that I vote just because I'm allowed to--not because it makes a difference. The apathy is a shame and I hope one day it turns around.

  23. Oh nice! I'm downloading this to my blackberry right away! It sounds like it will be great :)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.