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Tor hardcover $17.95
review by Jonathan McCalmont
Following on the heels of the likes of China Mieville and Scott Westerfeld, Cory Doctorow (Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom and Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town) has decided to jump the fence and chance his arm in the uber-profitable young-adult market with a book called Little Brother in homage to the creation of a certain G. Orwell (deceased). As a piece of art, Little Brother conjures words such as 'workmanlike' and 'satisfactory', but to judge this work by those values alone is to ignore not only its power but also its importance as a cultural manifesto. However, to pull together a manifesto is also to set in stone certain principles and assumptions that can be easily glossed over when they exist only as conceptual feathers floating in the updrafts of the cultural zeitgeist. With Little Brother, Doctorow has not only beautifully articulated the collective values of online culture; he has also laid out many of its failings.
The book tells the story of Marcus, a 17 year-old high school student from San Francisco. A child of the digital age, Marcus is completely at home with all aspects of digital culture including MMORPGs and hacking. One day, Marcus and his friend Darryl use their technical skill to escape their heavily-surveilled high school, and meet up with some friends in order to track down a clue that is part of some online global treasure hunt. While the kids are out searching for the clue, terrorists blow up the San Francisco Bay Bridge. In the scrum to get to a shelter, Darryl is stabbed and the gang flag down a passing humvee only to be whisked off to a secret prison run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) who question, abuse and threaten them for a number of days, before releasing them back into a terrified America that is looking to its government to protect them from future terrorist attacks, regardless of the cost to their civil liberties. Marcus realises how invasive these measures are and he starts to set up a secret, encrypted linux-only network known as the Xnet, which rapidly becomes the social focus for San Francisco's young adults when they choose to start disrupting the increasingly monolithic apparatus of America's security state. Marcus and his new girlfriend Ange attend illegal parties, jam detection systems and escalate the stakes again and again, inviting responses from the DHS until eventually mainstream America (in the shape of the governor of California) blinks and realises what it has become.
Little Brother has the unadorned and accessible style and structure that we have come to expect from YA titles. It is a quick and undemanding read that, aside from a couple of needless digressions, benefits from a beautifully paced and free-flowing plot that breaks down into nearly self-contained chapters each headed with a recommendation to check out a different bookshop. This is not the work's only act of advocacy.
The book's ideas on matters technological, artistic, political, educational and social are not only inherently interesting, they are also delivered with the same intense and infectious enthusiasm that seems to drip from every word Cory Doctorow utters. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to see him speak at a convention recently and his charisma and enthusiasm were such that had he suggested that the convention march immediately upon Downing Street, I'm sure a large proportion of attendees would have followed him. In fact, it is difficult to imagine walking away from Little Brother without being affected by it in some way. Personally, after reading the book I was inspired to reread Jack Kerouac's On The Road (1951) and to take a long hard look at my Firefox add-ons. Going by the reactions of other seasoned critics, I get the impression that I'm not the only one. However, it is precisely because of the infectiousness of the book's ideas and the feeling that Doctorow has really tapped into some shared sense of cultural identity and aspiration, it is absolutely vital to not be blind to the book's faults.
Little Brother's most obvious problem is that the back end of its plot is as repetitive as Stephen Sommers' 2004 cartoonish schlock-fest Van Helsing. Both works feature an introductory first act in which the characters are introduced and the situation defined only for the rest of the story to fall into an endless loop. In the case of Little Brother, this loop begins with a sense empowerment that is slowly asphyxiated as the walls start to close in on the protagonists. The loop then moves to an emotionally poignant breakthrough during which secrets are revealed to loved ones before the plot can regroup and move on with renewed vigour and sense of empowerment.
Van looked like she was going to cry. She took a couple of deep breaths and stood up. "I can't do it, I'm sorry. I can't watch you do this. It's like watching a car wreck in slow motion. You're going to destroy yourself, and I love you too much to watch it happen." [page 47]
"I was in jail. After the bridge blew. I was in jail for that whole time."
The sobs that came then didn't sound like my voice. They sounded like an animal noise, maybe a donkey or some kind of big cat noise in the night. I sobbed so my throat burned and ached with it, so my chest heaved. [page 101]
My own father, and the way that he had been changed by my disappearance to Treasure Island. He'd been just as broken as Darryl's father, but in his own way. And his face, when I'd told him where I'd been.
That was when I knew that I couldn't run. [page 128]
Unfortunately, none of these breakthroughs are particularly convincing. This is partly a reflection of the fact that Doctorow's characterisation is somewhat lacking in nuance. Marcus himself is, much like Manfred Macx from Charles Stross' Accelerando (2005), a Heinlein-style competent man who is not only astonishingly skilled and capable in matters artistic and technical, but he is also a born leader who energises an entire political movement around himself simply by handing out a few CD-ROMs. His friends and family also appear rather two-dimensional, including his girlfriend Ange who is just a female version of Marcus with the added bonus of being that holy grail of teenaged male geeks; a sexually experienced and assertive female. The lack of depth to the cookie-cutter characterisation also extends into the relationships that are not only remarkably simple but also entirely stereotypical and straightforward; mothers love their sons unconditionally, fathers do too, but are emotionally remote and male friends love each other but would never say so, obviously.
Little Brother's plot is, much like its characterisation, simple and straightforward to the point of being repetitive. However, I suspect that the unadorned nature of these elements is intentional so as to keep younger readers onside. Indeed, a convoluted plot or a network of relationships as intense and complex as that of a French art house film would not only cost the book its accessibility, they would also completely overshadow the book's clear purpose; being a delivery vector for the values and beliefs of online culture.
The book is unashamedly didactic, in the grand old tradition not only of YA books such as C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles Of Narnia (1950-6), but also 'grown up' works such as Jostein Gardner's Sophie's World (1991), and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (1957). All of these books were written in order to educate their readers. This was done by discussing philosophy in the case of Sophie's World, familiarising children with the basic concepts of Christianity in The Chronicles Of Narnia and presenting a series of political and philosophical arguments in the case of Atlas Shrugged. Little Brother is arguably a better book than any of these as it is enthusiastic without being heavy handed, instructional without being preachy and informative without being directive. Its message as the same you will find in most Internet forums and in particular at places such as Boing Boing, Digg and Slashdot, the message is one of a right to privacy, a right to not be treated as a criminal (either by the state or media companies), an engagement with the world through art, science and politics and, most controversially, the idea that a citizen has a right to use direct action in order to protect any of these liberties. Ultimately, the extent to which you are likely to enjoy Little Brother is determined by the extent to which you agree with the values of online culture and Doctorow's political manifesto, but that issue aside, the book's politics are interesting precisely because they attempt to set down a lot of the ethical principles that are just assumed to be correct in online culture, and by setting them down, Doctorow invites us to scrutinise them more closely.
Little Brother is a work that is clearly influenced by cyberpunk. This is due in part to direct literary influence, and in part to the role played by cyberpunk in defining the emblems and semiotics of online culture. This has a number of interesting political ramifications.
As the critic Paul Kincaid once argued, cyberpunk is the literature of America's end; an America where the state has effectively collapsed, leaving only anarchy kept economically viable only by vast multinational corporations. It was fitting that the protagonists of stories set in these kinds of worlds should be marginals and criminals. For example, in Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), Case is one job away from living on the streets, while in Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992), Hiro delivers pizzas in order to pay the rent on the cargo container he shares with a musician. However, as cyberpunk gave way to post-cyberpunk, the dystopian aspects of the genre began to focus less of marginals and more upon middle class folk. For example, Manfred Macx in Accelerando is upper-middle-class, and consorts with ministers and corporate CEOs, while the protagonist of Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk series (2001-3) is a criminal elevated to the nobility. The embourgeoisement of the cyberpunk protagonist is also visible in Doctorow's own works such as Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom (2003), starring a character that actually lives in Disney World. Even Gibson himself has taken to elevating his characters as his last book Spook Country (2007) was so clogged with smugly hip rich people that it came close to resembling Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker's Nathan Barley. Little Brother is the final step in this process of embourgeoisement as its characters are not only upper middle class; they are actually children, taking cyberpunk from marginals to Madeleine McCann in one short generation.
Each step up the social ladder has caused the horizons of cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk to move that little bit nearer. By the time Gibson's Spook Country (a mainstream continuation of Gibson's SF writing) emerged, that horizon extended no further than the art galleries, airport lounges and hotels of a nu-media elite. Where once cyberpunk wrote about the poor to whom the rich were invisible, cyberpunk's children now write about the rich, to whom the poor are invisible and the problems of the world merely the sound of a rolling news channel blaring from a TV in the background. This is a trend continued by Little Brother.
Despite the book's story taking place against a background of the war on terror, Little Brother has no interest at all in the details of the war. In fact, I don't think the President of Little Brother's America is ever actually named. He is a distant figure; his political battles are unknown and uninteresting. The same goes of the other side, which are referred to simply as 'Arabs' or 'the terrorists'.
I don't remember much about the trip to the courthouse. They had me chained to five other prisoners, all of whom had been in for a lot longer than me. One only spoke Arabic - he was an old man, and he trembled. The others were all young. I was the only white one. [page 141]
The war on terror only becomes relevant to Marcus and his friends when the government starts watching them, locking them up and bugging their computers. His objection to the surveillance state is not that the government should not be watching people, or that everyone has a right to privacy, rather it is that the government's methods of surveillance generate false positives that lead to innocent people being bothered by their government. Little Brother does not deal with the morality of the war on terror or of locking up Muslims, Marcus only gets angry when middle class kids start getting locked up by an interfering government; he is the person who, when pulled over by the police, asks why they are not out arresting 'real criminals'. Given that Marcus is the kind of can-do hero that populated works of golden age SF, it is perhaps little wonder that he shares that era's political individualism.
Marcus is a middle class American teenager. He has no interest in what's going on in the outside world (except that his mother tells him that Britain's more civilised but apparently it's worse than America), he has no interest in poverty, the environment, race or religion. Online culture may well be sophisticated and fast moving, but it can also be terrifyingly insipid. Because Marcus has no interest in any of these issues, he has no understanding of the need for a state. He has the can-do spirit of the American settler or the space colonist but, instead of the endless horizons of the American plains or space, he sees only the endless consumer boom of American market capitalism. When the hand of the state occludes those narrow horizons, Marcus does not try to engage with the political institutions of his country or city. He does not write to the ACLU or the EFF, he goes to the mattresses and starts a revolution. His approach to solving problems is that of the cowboy or the Mafioso; he is distrustful of the state and therefore of the state's democratic institutions and therefore largely ignores them. Indeed, Doctorow portrays not only politicians but also the media as actively hostile to Marcus' civil liberties agenda.
We were looking at a stack of newspapers we'd picked up and brought to the café. They all contained 'reporting' on the party in Dolores Park and to a one, they made it sound like a drunken, druggy orgy of kids who'd attacked the cops. USA Today described the cost of the 'riot' and included the cost of washing away the pepper-spray residue from the gas-bombing, the rash of asthma attacks that clogged the city's emergency rooms, and the cost of processing the eight hundred arrested 'rioters'.
No one was telling our side. [page 80]
These are problems for any political agenda that involves direct action. Direct action is inherently undemocratic and, as Deleuze and Guattari suggested in Anti-Oedipus (1972), everyone wants to be a fascist because at one point or another, everyone wants to impose their political will on someone else. As a result, it is easy to paint Marcus less as a revolutionary and more as a kind of politically spoiled child. Doctorow does recognise this problem and, despite the book's evident distrust of old media and government, the book's denouement comes at the hands of a newspaper reporter and the elected Governor of California who both make sure that Marcus jumps through the hoops of the criminal justice system as a result of his actions. Indeed, it is quite possible that, had Marcus not gone to a reporter, his direct action and revolutionary posturing might well have been a complete waste of time.
Politically, Little Brother is a frustrating read that clearly tries to have its cake and eat it. The book glamorises direct action and speaks enthusiastically to the narrow moral concerns of online culture. However, the book also makes it clear that direct action has its limitations and might indeed be foolish (particularly when the bone of contention is something as obvious as the government locking up innocent white middle class kids). It also tries to suggest that kids should occasionally get off the Internet and read a proper book or look into their own history, thereby acknowledging that there's more to life than what is on the front page of Digg. In effect Little Brother tries to be both the sensible liberal and the romantic radical without really acknowledging that you cannot possibly be both at the same time.
Little Brother is first and foremost a demonstration of Doctorow's skill as a political agitator. The entire book is filled with exactly the kind optimism and enthusiasm that you would hope young adults would be filled with. In fact, the book is so engaging that all but the most cynical are liable to ignore many of its problems as the niceties of plot and characterisation are washed away by the same wave of likeableness that makes any political caveat aimed in its direction seem churlish or uncharitable. However, should that desire for critical munificence falter for even a second then it becomes instantly clear that Little Brother is by no means a great book, even if it is infinitely preferable to the sinister superstition championed by books such as The Chronicles Of Narnia.
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