Review of LITTLE BROTHER by Cory Doctorow (see his blog)
Tor Teen, April 2008
High school is a bit of a drag, but Marcus manages to get through it--thanks to the great games he plays, and his proclivity for computer hacking. Living in San Francisco, he's learned the way the game is played, and he's willing to face down the Vice Principal who would really love to have him expelled. But when terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge (and the Bart tunnel underneath it), everything changes. Marcus is picked up by a Department of Homeland Security team and, when he uses the same sass on them that he uses on his teachers, he's thrown into a mini-Guantanamo Bay prison camp. When he's freed, days later, Marcus is angry and radicalized, but finds that his normally understanding father has gone over to the other side, willing to accept restrictions in personal freedom that he would never have agreed to before the bombing.
Before DHS set Marcus free, they warned him that they'd be watching and that next time they gather him up, he won't be let go. Considering that one of his friends never was set free from the secret prison camp, Marcus can easily believe their threats. Technology, though, cuts both ways. Although the DHS can use it to monitor activities, to search for suspicious behavior, to track communications, it can also be used to hide secrets--and can be manipulated to overwhelm the human resources who must follow up with the discrepancies technology detects. Using an X-Box hack, Marcus creates a tunnel network in the internet that allows hops from X-Box to X-Box, accessing the Internet through multiple and changing patterns. He then works with a friend to convert San Francisco's music download system to support full encryption, allowing the encrypted traffic among the rebellious youth to hide in the far vaster traffic of music downloads.
Although Marcus is radicalized, his friends are frightened by the constant threat that the DHS, working with the local police, impose. His activities do bring him a new girlfriend, though, which, considering that Marcus (at 17) has only kissed three girls, is a positive step. Still, no matter how much technology Marcus can hack, no matter how clever he is in developing devices that detect hidden cameras, man-in-the-middle attacks, and phishing, the government has far more resources. Sooner or later, he knows he'll be caught.
Author Cory Doctorow (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of novels by Doctorow) asks critical questions about our national response to terrorist attacks. If beating the terrorists requires giving up the freedoms that the terrorists object to, can we really say that we've beaten them? If terrorism is a horrible, but ultimately minor threat (more people are struck by lightning in the US than attacked by terrorists), is it really worth subverting our entire economy and political system to fight it? And to what extent should ordinary people be inconvenienced by techniques that make the government look like it's doing something, but that don't actually reduce the chances of a terrorist attack (taking off shoes in airports, silly color-coding alerts).
Doctorow doesn't spend a lot of time really addressing nuances. The DHS in this story is bad--ultimately using torture at home, and turning inconvenient (but not necessarily guilty) people over to foreign governments for more torture and eventual disposal. I would have found the story more interesting if Doctorow had constructed a less extreme straw man. Unfortunately, a lot of his portrayals turn out to be accurate pictures of what Americans actually have done to one another--in the name of fighting terrorism.
For me, the story is strongest when Matthew is creating new hacks, new techniques to defeat the DHS's 'big brother' schemes to keep a watch on everyone in San Francisco--in the hopes of heading off another terrorist attack. The discussions of the X-Box hack, of public key encryption, of Yippie-style street-theater protests, Matthew's hidden-camera finder, and the RFID switchers, all make good reading and are plausible as approaches that protestors could use to make infringement of liberties more difficult. Of course, setting the story in San Francisco makes the protest atmosphere as well as the high-tech leaning of the story convincing.
Doctorow and Tor are positioning LITTLE BROTHER as a young adult story. Certainly Matthew is both a teen and highly capable--which will be attractive to the young adult market. Likewise, the idealistic freedom-loving element of the story, and the pranks Matthew and his friends play fit with that young adult group. Overall, though, the themes of the story, the issues being dealt with, and the social commentary span all ages.
Too generous? Too stingy. Or did I miss the whole point? Send your comments to email@example.com. I'll publish the best letters I get so let me know if I can use your name.
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