Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is difficult to categorize. One on hand, it’s a speculative fiction novel that uses technology that we would easily recognize to tell a story that is totally dependent on that technology. So is it science fiction? Maybe. Is it fantasy? Well, sort of. All of the structural landmarks on classical storytelling are here, but the traditional fantasy setting is absent.
Okay, let’s back up.
Little Brother is the story of Marcus Yallow, a teenager living in San Francisco. At the beginning of the novel, there is a terrorist attack on the BART travel system, destroying one of the city’s busiest bridges, killing many people, and sending the city into a state of panic. Homeland Security moves in and effectively turns San Francisco into a police state, subverting constitutional rights to privacy to ensure that another attack does not take place. Using homebrew applications and personally-modded electronics, Marcus and his three friends engineer a guerilla campaign to undermine Homeland Security’s unconstitutional occupation.
The title of the novel is an obvious play on George Orwell’s 1984, but the connection between the two is more than superficial. Doctorow is a feverish proponent of responsible uses of technology and civic engagement, and this novel is one of his most potent articulations of those ideas. Technology in the novel is a tool of empowerment, connection, and agency. Little Brother is listed and sold as a YA book, but there are themes in here that hit as heavily as anything in Orwell or Huxley. Marcus and his friends fight against Homeland Security because they have a stake in the fight that is deeply personal. After being branded as terrorists, deprived of their rights, and even tortured, the kids incite a technological revolution. Outsmarting HS, creating tech to circumvent their networks, the kids work to get the word out that what is actually happening in their city is not the triumphalist, patriotic narrative that the TV news is suggesting.
With this focus, it would be easy to assume that Little Brother is cynical of what the United States has become in the years since 9/11. On the contrary, I found it to be a deeply patriotic text that shows intelligent kids engaging with difficult ideas of individuality, community, and the inalienable rights of citizens in opposition to a government that has overstepped its boundaries. Little Brother shows what happens when the foundational ideas on which the country was built are eroded in the name of increased safety and government oversight, and it also allows us to see what happens when the youth of that nation use their unique powers to take them back.
Doctorow manages to install all of these difficult and controversial themes and ideas into a novel that also manages to be a hell of a good read. I picked up Little Brother on a whim partly because I had heard of Doctorow and partly due to the emphatic blurb by Neil Gaiman on the front cover. It’s a deeply cool, deeply intelligent, and deeply important book. Its message is one of engagement, responsibility, and the rights of everyone, including teenagers, to be active members of their government.
Little Brother is available in paperback from Tor, and Doctorow posts free electronic copies of all of his books under the Creative Commons License on his website, Craphound. The page for Little Brother can be found here.
Little Brother gets five pieces of lasagna. Read it.