Adopting (and Defending) Little Brother

I don't get to read very many novels. The nature of my work means that there is always a massive pile of nonfiction for me to plow through and when I have time to relax, I tend to consume other media rather than read literary fiction (comics being the exception). But I always make time for the latest work of Cory Doctorow, who is my favorite contemporary science fiction writer. When I heard Cory's new novel, Little Brother, had hit the book shelves, I grabbed it to take with me on my long flight to Australia. (Gee, I've managed to get three blog posts just off of the media I consumed between here and Australia!) It turned out to be ideal reading on one level -- I didn't want to put the book down once I started reading it -- and less than ideal on another -- the book left me really paranoid dealing with airport security and customs people and when I tried to read it to cope with my jet lag in the hotel room, I stayed up all night just to finish it. Don't try this trick at home, Kids. But you will want to read Little Brother, the sooner, the better, because this book has the makings of a political movement.

The title of Little Brother pays tribute to George Orwell, but the content is shaped by our own "9/11 changed everything" society. It's as timely as the day's headlines: literally since I started reading the book just as the Supreme Court was ruling that Habeas Corpus applied at Gitmo. The book was written for young adult readers but, as the cliche goes, it's fun for children of all ages.

Marcus, the book's protagonist, is a hacker/gamer/geek who has learned how to work around the various control mechanisms of his school but he is ill-prepared for confronting what happens after a terrorist attack destroys the Bay Bridge in San Francisco and takes out a chunk of the BART tunnels as well. Homeland Security basically occupies San Francisco, which becomes more and more like a Police State as the book progresses. He and his friends, who had skipped school to play an ARG, are taken into custody, shipped off to a secret prison camp on Treasure Island, and subjected to torture -- well, assuming waterboarding DOES count as torture.

When Marcus is released, he takes everything he has learned about technology and uses it to try to overturn what the federally-sanctioned thugs have done to America's tradition of freedoms and liberties. He hacks game systems and deploys them as an alternative social network which allows young people to communicate under the noses of their parents and teachers. Along the way, the book addresses some core debates about whether we should trade off some of our freedom to insure greater security in a post-911 political landscape and provides very specific instructions on how to create an alternative political culture and technological infrastructure.

If the details supplied by the novel aren't enough on their own, the book ends with Afterwords by digital security expert Bruce Schneier on the importance of good Crypto and by XBox Hacker Andrew "Bunnie" Huang, as well as a bibliography for where to go to learn more about the technoculture and political dimensions of the narrative. And Doctorow has partnered with the DIY website, The Instructables, to provide some How To pieces. And the book takes seriously what we are calling the New Media Literacies, including the ability to network and pool knowledge to accomplish tasks far bigger than any individual can accomplish on their own. Indeed, I plan to assign the book in a class I'm teaching this fall on Civic Engagement and New Media Literacy. All of this reflects Doctorow's unique perspective as a key player in the Electronic Frontier Foundation and as one of the masterminds behind Boing Boing.

So far, I've made the book sound a bit too much like agit prop -- on the right side, to be sure, but pedantic at best -- but it's also a damn fine read. Sure, there's a little bit of preaching to the choir going on here, no doubt. I found the book affirmed many of my most deeply held political beliefs and as such, it is one which I plan to pass along to some of the young adult readers in my family in hopes of undoing the job the public schools have been doing on them lately. At heart, the book is about the right, no, the obligation to question authority and to stand up for the American tradition of civil liberties even when -- especially when -- it is hard. Little Brother articulates a very different notion of patriotism and what a hero is than we've seen from the dominant media in recent years.

The young people quickly adopt a slogan, "Don't Trust Anyone Over 25," which they think reflects the generational gap in perspective between those who grew up online and understand how the security hysteria is destroying cyberculture and those who didn't and who are drawn towards a more authoritarian mind set. But the book itself keeps complicating that distinction between Digital Natives and Immigrants, offering vivid vignettes of a teacher who forces the students to think for themselves even if it means that he will ultimately lose his job, of a reporter who is willing to speak truth to power, and of parents who stand by their kids when they need their support the most. Doctorow wants his young readers to take their own political agency seriously, to find their voice as citizens, and to tap the resources that are available to them to transform their society, but he also wants them to recognize allies where-ever they may find them and continually situates Marcus's contemporary resistance in a much longer history of countercultural politics.

It doesn't hurt that Doctorow fills the book with local color details about San Francisco, a city he knows well, or that he makes every step in the process seem plausible and only slightly amplified from things we've already seen happen in the past eight years. It also doesn't hurt that Little Brother is also the best plotted book Doctorow has ever written. Up until now, I've liked the tone and world building of his fiction better than the plots; like many contemporary SF writers, he has a tendency to build rich and interesting societies and then not really know what to do with them. I'm OK with that because Eastern Standard Tribe and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom are some of the best drawn worlds I've seen in SF since the original cyberpunks.

But this time, he held his plot together throughout, allowing the action and relations to build chapter by chapter, and taking his protagonist on the trajectory from Rebel Without a Cause to the leader of a youth movement, even as he deals with the anxiety, fear, and confusion someone in that position would face. He manages to throw in issues with his peers, parents, and teachers, as well as a touchingly drawn first love story, which adds some emotional resonance to the high flying political drama. Most adults for young readers stop there, acknowledging all of the fears and uncertainties of growing up, without leaving their young fans with any sense that they hold in their hands the potential to change the world. Doctorow trusts his readers enough to take them seriously as political agents and in that sense, I am hoping it will do for my young nephews's generation what books like the ACLU Student Rights Handbook or Jerry Farber's The Student as Nigger did for mine.

Neil Gaiman has been similarly smitten with this book and shared on his blog his own hopes for how it will impact young readers:

I think it'll change lives. Because some kids, maybe just a few, won't be the same after they've read it. Maybe they'll change politically, maybe technologically. Maybe it'll just be the first book they loved or that spoke to their inner geek. Maybe they'll want to argue about it and disagree with it. Maybe they'll want to open their computer and see what's in there. I don't know. It made me want to be 13 again right now and reading it for the first time, and then go out and make the world better or stranger or odder.

Indeed, there are early signs that young readers are responding to the book's challenges by putting some of its ideas into action. Doctorow has created a website which documents the various ways his work is being appropriated and remixed. And there are already some interesting stories to be found there. For example, one group of coders is hard at work developing the ParanoidLinux program described in the novel:

Paranoid Linux is an operating system that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government (it was intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents), and it does everything it can to keep your communications and documents a secret. It even throws up a bunch of "chaff" communications that are supposed to disguise the fact that you're doing anything covert. So while you're receiving a political message one character at a time, ParanoidLinux is pretending to surf the Web and fill in questionnaires and flirt in chat-rooms. Meanwhile, one in every five hundred characters you receive is your real message, a needle buried in a huge haystack.

~Cory Doctorow (Little Brother, 2008)

When those words were written, ParanoidLinux was just a fiction. It is our goal to make this a reality. The project officially started on May 14th, and has been growing ever since. We welcome your ideas, contributions, designs, or code. You can find us on freenode's irc server in the #paranoidlinux channel. Hope to see you there!

Doctorow has shared a YouTube video produced by some young readers who dfamatize the opening passages from the novel:

A reader and former Senior House resident Alec Resnick wrote me to ask me whether I could think of another book which had been so carefully designed to launch a resistance movement. Certainly science fiction authors have been trying to use the genre as a means of political commentary since before any one thought to call it science fiction. H.G. Wells saw himself as a political novelist and was only retrospectively understood as writing SF. The Futurians were an influential group in the early history of science fiction fandom who saw the genre as a tool for social change. They included Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Damon Knight, and Frederik Pohl. Check out Space Merchants for a good example of the kind of social criticism these guys smuggled into what were then dime paperbacks. On the conservative end of the spectrum, we could certainly read a writer like Robert Heinlein as making the case for mandatory military service as tied to voting in Starship Troopers, for example. We can see the feminist science writers of the 1960s as explicitly bound up with movements for social change and science fiction was very popular with the leaders of the anti-war movements of the 1960s. And then, of course, there's George Orwell himself who certainly saw the value of mixing politics and speculative fiction -- I'm never sure whether we can call 1984 science fiction or not but it's certainly swimming in the same stream. Many of these books include commentary on current developments and sometimes blue prints for alternative social structures.

But I don't know of another book which provides so much detailed information on how to transform its alternative visions into realities. And as such, this may be the most subversive book aimed at young readers in the past decade. I fear that in the current political climate a lot of teachers and librarians are going to end up battling school boards and angry parents to make sure young people have access to this book. If they do so, it will be a battle worth fighting.

If you want to sample the book, Doctorow has made it available for free download, but trust me, you are going to want to own a copy. What good is a political page turner without any pages to turn!