No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, January 06, 2013

2012/53: Little Brother -- Cory Doctorow

...what if I decreed that from now on, every time you went to evacuate some solid waste, you'd have to do it in a glass room perched in the middle of Times Square, and you'd be buck naked?
Even if you've got nothing wrong or weird with your body -- and how many of us can say that? -- you'd have to be pretty strange to like that idea. Most of us would run screaming. Most of us would hold it in until we exploded.
It's not about doing something shameful. It's about doing something private. It's about your life belonging to you. [chapter 4]
Milton was of the devil's party without knowing it; Doctorow is of the teenagers'. Never trust anyone over 25? PARADOX, for the author of this novel is definitely too old to be trustworthy.

I felt excluded in a way I hadn't when reading Alice in Wonderland. And, yes, actually my politics are pretty much in line with Marcus's: but I'm of the opinion that a lot of what happens in the world is rooted in appearances.

Or, put it another way: imagine that I am holding something that looks like a bomb, and I refuse to let you near enough to examine it. Over there someone else is holding an apparently-identical something that looks like a bomb, and they also refuse to let you near enough to examine it, and then it blows up.

Am I holding a bomb?

Might you be forgiven for thinking that I was?

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed reading the novel, which was well-paced and full of interesting 3D characters. I found the crypto side fascinating, and I can well believe that this is 'the day after tomorrow' in terms of US civil liberties. (Or UK civil liberties, for that matter.) I am wholly in agreement with the distinction in that quote at the top, between 'shameful' and 'private'. But I did find myself somewhat alienated by Marcus' narrative, and this was an excellent opportunity to write a 'controversial' essay [below] for the finale of the Coursera Fantasy and SF course!

Reading Little Brother feels like an abrupt return to earth after the imaginative, expansive novels we've read in the last nine weeks. I'm perplexed by its inclusion on a course that, until now, has focussed on genre classics. The prose, pitched at a young adult audience, is functional rather than poetic. The happy ending is more teen romance than world-changing epiphany. And it's set in the very near future: indeed, the time it's set in may already have passed.

Is Little Brother science fiction? It's fiction about science -- the science of cryptography -- and on that level it's educational and informative, albeit about crypto software and hardware that already exists. As the author says, "The technology in this book is either real or nearly real" [1]. Marcus' treatment at the hands of the DHS is extreme, but several enforcement agencies are guilty of similar excesses, in the USA and internationally. Little Brother is more extrapolation ('if this goes on') than invention.

Another aspect of the novel that I question is the presentation of older generations. "I know who not to trust: old people. Our parents. Grownups." [2] While this distrust of 'grown-ups' has its roots in the counterculture of the 1960s -- 'never trust anyone over 30' -- it's less justified now than it was then. Ange's and Marcus's parents have grown up in turbulent times, and are aware of the abuses perpetrated by corrupt agencies. It's worth noting that Marcus does find trustworthy adults: journalist Barbara Stanford and his own parents. (Though Marcus' Dad does toe the party line until he discovers that his son has been wrongfully imprisoned.)

But in this novel, people my age are part of the problem, not part of the solution. I am the enemy, and I feel excluded in a way that none of the other novels we've studied have made me feel. Maybe that's why I didn't engage with, Little Brother. It wasn't written for me.

Works cited:
Cory Doctorow, Little Brother, 2008: accessed online at
[1] Little Brother, introduction
[2] Ibid, chapter 10. The quote continues: "Grownups. When they think of someone being spied on, they think of someone else, a bad guy. When they think of someone being caught and sent to a secret prison, it's someone else -- someone brown, someone young, someone foreign. They forget what it's like to be our age." Okay, one character's viewpoint: but offensive to me as an activist and libertarian who's (gasp!) over 40.

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