Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cory Doctorow: Little Brother

Ha, it only just now struck me that “little brother” is obviously the opposite of Big Brother, the all-seeing dictator. I can’t remember now if the hero of this teen novel is ever called Little Brother, which is what I was asking myself as the computer was starting up, but since this novel is about private integrity being threatened by state surveillance of, amongst other things, computer traffic … can’t believe it didn’t strike me before. How thick of me. Possibly I just don’t think about the titles of novels a lot once I’ve started reading them – or ever, I certainly have enough trouble remembering them at all.

Anyway, picked this up on a whim at the library’s teen/youth section. I was drawn in by the name Doctorow (what, another one? I thought) and figured that maybe the real teens of the family would read it. (No.) Now, haven’t got the book with me so I’m forgetting the names of all the main characters, but our hero is a 17-year-old technology savvy type, who gets stuck downtown with friends when San Francisco suffers a terror attack. One of them is injured in the crowds, and when trying to flag down help they are detained by the NSA who are in full suspicion mode. They are all interrogated, but our hero (what the hell was his name? well, his internet nick was M1k3y so let’s go with that) antagonises the officer in charge by not immediately giving up his phone passwords and the like, so he gets the worst treatment and is told that they’ll be watching him. Once released and home he doesn’t tell his parents where he’s been. He discovers that his own country’s behaviour after the terror attack is more terrifying than any outsiders’ attempts to scare the people could possibly be. It’s tweaked a bit compared to reality after 9-11, but really not unfeasible.

Wanting to fight back in some way he organises a separate internet using X-boxes (which everyone owns since they were handed out for free in a campaign – news to me dude. Come the dictators I’m lost). On the x-net they spread information on how to scramble electronic travel passes, disguise their gait for the gait recognition software and so on. This prevents the NSA from controlling the situation, since they are forced to stop and question hundreds or thousands of ordinary people whose scrambled travel passes make their travel patterns look erratic and suspicious. Since this is a teen novel it ends well, a final showdown and a sudden rescue, with an interesting moral twist: M1k3y needs to get help from his parents and traditional media to make an impact and get things to change.

Sweden plays a little part too, since our very own Pirate Party hosts server space for M1k3y that no-one can get to. FYI.

As a book it’s not great literature, as I’m fond of saying, but it’s exciting and very teen appealing, with some sex thrown in. (God, I loved this as kid, thinking we young would save the world and be all rebellious and organised, in a loose and laissez-faire way of course. Bet you thought I’d say I loved the sex. Ha. Well, I probably wouldn’t mind the sex, to be honest.) Lot’s of tech info that frankly is sometimes a bit beyond me, but I’ll go with it. The message is that we should fight the current trend of surveillance, even if we have “nothing to hide”, simply because we deserve our privacy. Analogy: going to the toilet is nothing shameful or odd either, but we wouldn’t like it made mandatory that we have to go in a glass box in a public place, would we? It’s very thought-provoking stuff designed to make the reader shake of his or her apathy in these areas.

Recommended despite a few loose ends and simplicities. M1k3y for instance is a little too wise – obviously the adult writer trying to remember his youth self but nevertheless not being unable to stop himself from preaching a little. Author website here.

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