Alright, here comes another novel, this of the non-graphic variety, from Cory Doctorow. I knew I would review the book Little Brother all the way forever ago when I first started this blog, because the book did too much for me and remains incredibly relevant to this day. I even have a feeling it could go on being relevant for quite some time, if people a smart enough to keep reading it. I’m doing my own little part here to make sure that they are.
I was roughly fourteen when the book came out in 2008. One day I came across the book and saw on the cover a quote from none other than Neil Gaiman saying, “I’d recommend Little Brother over pretty much any book I’ve read this year.” As you could’ve guessed, that through the book right to the top of my reading list. Proving faith in the Gaiman is never faith ill-placed, I enjoyed the book immensely.
The story follows teen Marcus Yallow as he goes from an average, snarky high schooler to a government dissident getting water-boarded right in downtown San Francisco. Creating a series of events highly reminiscent of 9/11 gone wrong, Doctorow writes of a terrorist attack on San Francisco bringing about a heavy-handed regime ruled by the Department of Homeland Security. Like any decent novel calling on Orwell’s ghost, this antagonistic government force uses technology to spy on people and invade their rights.
Marcus is caught up in a stampeding crowd during the attacks, and somehow ends up getting detained by the DHS. He is eventually released after harsh treatment and no little to no sympathy when he tries to explain that there must be some mistake that he had no idea how the attacks was happened. He’s eventually released, but things turn worse from there when he discovers that at least one of his friends is seriously injured and that his personal movements are being tracked. Being a rather tech-savy semi-genius, he also finds that his laptop has been bugged.
On top of those personal violations, he finds that strict curfew laws, new and invasive surveillance policies, and even a patriotically altered curriculum at his high school. Marcus responds by instigating a youth revolution, using his tech know-how to provide means for students to get around the censorship and surveillance. A dangerously unbalanced but passionate tug of war starts to take place between the youth from San Francisco and the new government regime. I don’t feel like giving away the ending, as it’s a book I truly recommend you read, but things keep escalating roughly and quickly right up until the very end.
Like most of Doctorow’s books, reading this one made me feel not just like I should become more involved in political issues, this time surveillance, but that I could too, even with my young age. I feel this is the true genius of Doctorow’s piece and few others like it: they make people realize that, in this current technological environment, Big Brother doesn’t have to be the only sibling with any power.
People quite often look at giant corporate data miners or the NSA and their little online Panopticon as gigantic, powerful villains, but fighting these guys is not as futile and pointless as 1984 and a whole bunch of earlier sci-fi lit still choking on Cold War fumes would have you believe. Orwell, like many others, was seriously worried about a totalitarian regime like the USSR spreading across the world. Technology, like the ever present televisions and speakers espousing the wise words of Big Brother, were a tool in that suppression for the government. However, once technology developed enough that 1984 could conceivably happen, the reality in which that tech existed complicated enough to change the sort of narrative people expected out of their dystopian sci-fi romps. Little Brother illustrates that change perfectly
We didn’t have commander Commie come and install a giant TV with cameras and a speaker into our homes, we were the ones to choose to plaster our homes with tablets, laptops, phones, little cameras and ears. It’s a different dynamic. The exceptionally democratic nature of the internet also means that people have often used technology to let voice unpopular or dissident opinions and fight injustice. I’m thinking mainly of the Arab Spring here. In this era, people seem to believe they have much more control over what they can and ca ‘t do with technology. Even with prying ears and eyes, the average population of a developed country is tech-savy enough to feel they can control their fate with their smart phones.
Heck, you don’t even have to look as recently as Little Brother for books that nod at this changing dynamic of power and privacy in technology. V for Vendetta, the Alan Moore comic responsible for that movie responsible for that Guy Fawkes mask, (the creepy smiley guy with a mustache and goatee, as my parents knew him,) that everyone just had to wear during the occupy movement, was written in the 80s. In general, it seems that even our worst case scenario stories are giving characters a chance to fight back more than they once did before. What’s more, heroes can, like Marcus, now figure out ways to use various kinds of tech to try and combat oppressive tin-plated dictators with delusions of godhood.
I certainly wasn’t a master hacker when I read Little Brother, but the great thing about this book was that Doctorow made sure to show that you didn’t have to be to fight tech with tech. Marcus, his friends, and by the end most of his school and a good chunk of the younger population were able to fight the DHS baddies by just communicating and working together. It’s a sentiment that still definitely holds true in public opinion, and a very encouraging one at that. It seems like the more technology advances, the more people live with the stuff everyday, it becomes a tool or weapon they know how to use and protect, and that mentality is seeping into the very depths of our stories and narratives.