© 2008 Corey Doctorow
Following the destruction of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, a nightmare begins for a high school student who is scooped up by police in the aftermath. Not only has one of his friends been seriously wounded, but Marcus’ presence near the bridge and his suspicious computer equipment make him a person of interest to the authorities, doubly so when he refuses to unlock or decrypt his devices and information for them. If he’s innocent, he has nothing to hide, right? But Marcus has been rebelling before this, mostly to elude his school’s draconian security measures. and his initial stubbornness turns into revolutionary resolve when he realizes that the authorities are not merely mistaken: they are malevolent. He seems doomed in the police state that San Francisco has become overnight, where the demonization of any dissent alienates Marcus from his family and friends, but there are other allies waiting in the wings, and they and his own resolve will spur him on.
So begins Little Brother, a man vs state story that combines the alienation and surveillance of 1984 with modern cybersecurity tools. At its best, Little Brother is a technologically savvy thriller, a defiant championing of civil liberties amid the war on terror, and a call to arms to readers to get serious about learning to defend themselves against abuse. This continues after the novel: there are several essays included after the story on the nature of security. At its worst, the arguments are one-sided, with only one attempt at mutual understanding. The security apparatus of the State is so extensive, however – both in the story in real life – that I can’t seriously begrudge Doctorow just wanting to fire up righteous indignation. Easily my favorite aspect of Little Brother was the pervasive cybersecurity information: Marcus doesn’t just do things, but as a narrator he’s conscious that he’s speaking to an audience, and explains how encryption or whatever is he’s doing at the moment works. Winston’s intelligence as cyberpunk rebel extends not only to tech, but to the nature of resistance: he realizes that certain tactics will only strengthen the government’s hand against him, so the trick is to find ways to keep them off balance — sometimes by appearing to retreat.
Little Brother is an exceptional read, a smart thriller that takes its teen readers seriously. If you are concerned about the status of civil liberties across the world, the surveillance state, or curious about how tech can both amplify and mitigate the problem, it’s one to take a look at.
The story’s use of a couple of young dissidents who fall in love underground reminded me strongly of a song called “By Morning” by folk-punk songwriter Evan Greer. He wrote it in tribute to several young people who were imprisoned on charges of terrorism for harassing an animal testing lab. The song begins at 1:15.
And if they come for us by morning, with that “knock knock” on the door —
I’ll hold you a little closer as they reach the second floor
And if I have to give my name, know I won’t be giving yours
I’ll run my hands through your hair, say it’s them that’s really scared
Because they know love is stronger than their bars can ever be.
- 1984, George Orwell. Little Brother is commonly referred to as “1984 for the 21st century”, which is a gross exaggeration. Even so, Little Brother makes numerous hat-tips to Orwell’s dystopia beyond the surveilliance state: one of Marcus’ online pseudonyms is pronounced “Winston”, for instance.
- No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald. The story of Edward Snowden and the surveillance apparatus of the NSA.