Worlds & Time

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I think I just read one of the most important books that I've ever read. It was good, too, but that is far outweighed by what I suspect will be the importance of the book to history. Uh, yeah, that sounds a bit dramatic, but bear with me for a little while.

I can't tell you about any of this, because I got an advance copy from Cory himself (yes, that Cory) when I met him at Viable Paradise, and I told him that I wouldn't distribute his book before it's published.

On the positive side, you probably won't see this for months anyway, so I'm going to go for it. When you do see this, buy this book (Update: I put a link to the Amazon pre-order page at the bottom). After it's out, Cory will probably distribute it for free, so check out his site in April 2008.

The title of Little Brother is representative of the theme of government surveillance and supposed security that drive the plot of the novel, and a play on Orwell's Big Brother.

Cory told me (and everyone at VP) that this book came easily to him because his experience with the EFF and his life commenting and being active in various forms of online activism provided the research for this book, and it shows through the detailed and realistic writing. The technology in the novel is not science fiction, and the themes are extremely relevant to today's society. It seems so relevant and recent that I was shocked to learn that it wasn't written over the course of this last weekend but rather last year.

In the book, Marcus, a high school student in San Francisco, is in the vicinity when terrorists bomb the Bay Bridge. While trying to get medical help for a friend caught in the crowds he and his friends are detained by the Department of Homeland Security. He is thrown into a secret prison where he is tortured and questioned by American security agents. After four days he is released but his best friend Darryl isn't so lucky; he is "disappeared" by the DHS.

The rest of the book follows Marcus as he rebels against the constraints of the new "post-bombing" world and uses commonly available technology to subvert the government's observation of both him and others. When they tap the local computer networks, he builds a new network. When they trace everyone with rdf chips, he figures out how to destroy their usefulness.

I just want to pause here for a moment and say that if you don't know what rdf chips are or how to build computer networks Cory's book does a phenomenal job of simplifying the technology and explaining how it works and what the main character is doing with it. When he uses netspeak like hawt and 1337, he explains what those words mean. As such, I think this book is going to appeal to a much wider audience than the typical geeky crowd that reads science fiction. This is "speculative fiction" in the broadest possible meaning of the term and I hope it will appeal to the general audience of fiction readers. I'll certainly try it out on my mother when I get a physical copy.

Three years ago I read 1984 for a college class and I suspect that in ten or twenty years you might be reading Little Brother there as well. This book is a call to arms over the current mindset of security and privacy invasion, and frames it in terms of this generation's struggle against conformity.

It also explicitly points out why restricting technology or Big Brother like surveillance won't make American's safer:

First, technology advances. What is good technology today is going to be out of date tomorrow, and if you try to restrict tomorrow's technology with today's standards, you are going to find that it is impossible. Instead, you'll have to try to stop the advancement of technology, which is a stupid thing to do in America, considering that our economy is based on that advancement.

Second, people (especially young people) explore. Putting up boundaries is stupid because people are always going to try to push at them. For every secure system created, people are going to test it, and eventually someone will crack it. They cracked DeCss, they cracked the Xbox, and they cracked the iPhone. If your protection depends on other people not attempting to break into your system, you aren't going to be successful for very long.

There is one thing that I think that his book missed, related to this article on inattentional blindness:
(You can see one of the videos here)

The authorities are so focused on monitoring specific things that they've been told to look for that they're going to miss the man in the gorilla suit. Inattentional blindness is a significant problem in security because the point of terrorism is that it be an unpredicted event or stimulus.

Thus, massive computer dragnets that search for unusual or "weird" behavior aren't going to find the terrorists, they're going to find odd people that like taking random trains for fun or people working to remodel their garages. Snooping for words like "assassinate" and "kill" on the internet aren't going to find murders or assassins because anyone can use a clever euphemism or just replace an s with a 5 or an a with a @.

When you can't carry nail clippers or water onto planes (when you really need the water to stay healthy when traveling, incidentally) that means that the security guards are less likely to notice that the cover of your hardcover book is made out of plastique. (Update and note: See here for a freakonomics blog entry about this subject published on December 4, 2007)

A much more successful way to police terrorists is to follow leads and specific profiles that you already have. Watching for unusual travel patterns wouldn't have stopped 9/11. Banning more than 6 oz. of water wouldn't have stopped Richard Reed. Looking only at men from the middle east wouldn't have stopped the Oklahoma City bombing.

Aside from the amazingly interesting themes of the book, you're probably wondering about how good the actual writing is. Cory's characterization is solid and his personal first person perspective really makes the narrative personal. In some ways Marcus brought to mind a modern version of Holden Caulfield, although I trusted Marcus as a much more reliable narrator and I didn't want to beat his head in with a bat.

The plot was completely engaging, and indeed I found myself staying late at work so that I could finish the last few pages. It's a real page turner. I found myself angry at people interrupting my enjoyment of this piece because of my actual job.

As I mentioned before, the voice in which this book is told is something special. The narrator is Marcus' (and I've met Cory and I was shocked at how different Marcus' speaks from the way that Cory speaks) and he manages to be both informational and easily understandable. Similar to the way that Holden's tone carries Catcher in the Rye, Marcus carries Little Brother.

The only other criticism that I can think of is that the setting isn't nearly as fully realized as the bleak world of 1984, although Little Brother's setting is easily as good or better than my best day writing so far.

Summed up, I think this is a brilliant book. I recommend it to everyone, even people that normally would turn up their noses at anything published by a science fiction/fantasy press. When it is published, you can be sure that I'll be passing this around my family as well as my friends.

(Update: Pre-order your copy here.)

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  • Thanks for the recommendation. I see that the book is coming in hardcover at the end of April. I'll make sure to remember that.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:52 AM  

  • I see your point. This is good book but As I read the review it just remember me of 1984. May be I give it a shout later at the end of the year.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:07 PM  

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