Book Reviews

Book Review: Little Brother

Cory Doctorow is known as much for his digital rights campaigning as for his fiction, and the two often go hand in hand: Doctorow is one of the best chroniclers of the many facets of digital culture and new media around. His novels address remix and mashup cultures, MMORPGs and ARGs, digital rights, creative commons and civil rights in a world where technology provides tools to governments and hackers alike to invade the privacy of people’s lives. Given his commitment to Creative Commons licensing, it isn’t surprising that many of Doctorow’s novels are online at his website for free.

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In Little Brother, a teenage American hacker’s playful attempts to get round his school’s increasingly draconian security systems become more than a game when he and his friends are arrested and interrogated by Homeland Security during a terrorist attack on San Francisco. When they are released, they find that the world has changed in a matter of days, as the government uses the attack as an excuse to invade privacy and restrict personal liberty.

Doctorow often references classic science fiction in his work and Little Brother is, as you might have guessed, filled with references to George Orwell’s novel 1984, which shaped the debate on individual rights to privacy and terrified readers with a vision of a future where everything was controlled by Big Brother. However, where Orwell’s Winston Smith only finds ways around the security measures out of frustration, Doctorow’s Marcus Yallow (hacker name: w1n5t0n) makes a game of it, as excited by every new challenge to his privacy as he is by the Alternate Reality Game (ARG) he plays in his spare time. It is not until Marcus is systematically stripped of his identity and privacy by his interrogators that he sees his rebellion as more than just a middle finger at the establishment.

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Doctorow does a good job of describing the security measures his hero is facing and even the more complicated hacker-speak doesn’t confuse too much. For anyone who knows about Internet culture, it’s always a relief to find a novelist speaking the same language, but this is also accessible to people who aren’t so immersed in the online world. The aftermath of the terrorist attack is familiar as a clear reference to 9/11, an event that shaped worldwide and online culture. The debate about how far international security concerns justify the invasion of privacy is ongoing, and Doctorow fully engages with it in this novel. He is definitely presenting an extreme version of the world: the government is very clearly using the attack as an excuse for expanding their powers, but Marcus’ father also embodies the understandable view that people are willing to put up with a reduction in personal privacy to protect their families. The view that ‘only those who have done wrong have something to fear’ from greater security monitoring is explored and questioned. Little Brother begins as an adventurous insight into the constantly-shifting world of hackers and security experts but quickly becomes darker as the novel progresses, with Marcus’ friends questioning why they should fight back when the odds are so stacked against them.

Marcus is pushed to the limits of his endurance and forced to question what he is willing to risk in pursuit of his own rights. He becomes a figurehead for a group of Internet rebels, but Doctorow constantly raises the question: at what point does a freedom fighter become a terrorist? Little Brother isn’t afraid to show both sides of the argument and has its characters questioning whether the ideal of civil liberty is more important than keeping people safe and why.

Find Little Brother in QUICK READS 823.91. This novel contains themes and content that some readers may find upsetting, including scenes of torture.

If you liked Little Brother

Try the classic 1984 by George Orwell, which opened up the debate on people’s rights to privacy and introduced the phrase “Big Brother”. A grim fable that has lost none of its power. (BOOK ZONE 823.91)

We’ve examined the history of Dystopian literature before and included Little Brother as part of our list of great examples.

Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present by Cory Doctorow is a short story collection which riffs on classic science fiction and continues his discussions of digital culture and Eastern Standard Tribe is about a world in which people around the globe set their sleeping cycles to the timezone agreed by their online ‘tribe’. (Find both in the BOOK ZONE at 823.91)

Cory Doctorow’s website has a lot of his books and stories available for free download as an implementation of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivs License, meaning that anyone can access or distribute it as long as they do so non-commercially. Doctorow isn’t afraid to practice what he preaches, asking readers who have downloaded the e-book for free but want to donate to him to buy a hard copy for a school instead.

Watch a lecture Doctorow gave at the Quantum to Cosmos Festival on “Copyright versus Universal Access to All Human Knowledge and Groups Without Cost: the state of play in the global copyfight”

 

References:

Morri, M. (2009) Cory Doctorow: little brother [photograph] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/idhren/ (Accessed: 10th November 2016).

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