20 May 2008

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother is the most entertaining instruction manual I have ever read.

Yes, it is a novel, but "novel" just means some sort of extended narrative fiction, and that doesn't give enough of a sense of what the book is up to. This is an unambiguously and unapologetically didactic novel, a novel that not only wants to teach its readers, but wants to inspire them to view the world through a particular lens and to act according to that view. It is a book with a very clear message, but more than just communicating a message, it seeks to give its readers a sense of how to spread the gospel and have fun while doing so.

Doctorow gets away with such open didacticism by pitching the book toward teens. Sympathetic adults will want to give it to kids because it's a pleasurable way to learn about some of the political and social issues likely to be present in their lives, and kids who encounter the book are likely to find it fascinating because of its anti-authoritarian stance -- yeah, it's trying to teach you stuff, but what it's trying to teach you is all the stuff adults don't want you to know!

The story is an exciting one of kids figuring out ways to undermine a police state -- as the title alludes, this is 1984 gone wireless and viral. A terrorist attack on San Francisco causes the Department of Homeland Security to institute draconian surveillance throughout the city and to detain and torture anybody they decide might be doing something remotely related to something that could in some possible way perhaps connect to something connected to terrorism. Thus, our narrator, Marcus, a teenage hacker who happens to be in a relatively wrong place at a very wrong time, spends some days in an undisclosed location where he is brutalized by federal agents. After his release, and after he discovers one of his friends was not released and might be dead, Marcus starts a rebellion via X-Box, a tool he's able to hack to create a secure underground internet. He and his friends and allies share knowledge and ideas, risks and bandwidth. They wreak havoc on the plodding tyrants who are out to destroy life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and all open source projects. (Ultimately, the kids do need some help from adults and dead-tree tech, but that's after they've done enough on their own to be causing concern at the White House.)

The story, characters, and prose are nothing particularly special -- if they were, they'd be a distraction from what really matters. This is a functional book, not an artistic one. The plot is fast-paced and surprising enough to keep us wanting to find out what happens, the characters are familiar enough middle-class urban American heterosexual teens to be appealing to the book's target demographic, and Doctorow writes Marcus's voice in an inoffensive approximation of that demographic's argot. There's even some romance and sex, but those elements are about as generic as it's possible for them to be, and they are by far the least convincing or interesting parts of the novel. (If you want to see Doctorow do the traditional elements of a novel better, see Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.)

To focus on traditional novelistic elements in Little Brother would be to miss the network for a few wireless routers. The tradition this book is a part of is less the tradition of 1984 than the tradition of Hugo Gernsback's scientifiction, and in many ways it lives up to Gernsback's vision of what science fiction should be better than any other book I can think of (at the moment). It tells a rousing story and teaches us stuff about science, both the science of now and the science of maybe-tomorrow. It even ships with two afterwords (one by security expert Bruce Schneier, one by hacker Andrew "bunnie" Huang) and a five-page narrative bibliography, all of which will help readers move from the world of the book to the world of the moment. In fact, Doctorow isn't content just to teach readers about tech -- he also wants us to learn some history, so he has Marcus discourse on how cool Jack Kerouac is, what you can find at the City Lights Bookstore, and the nature and purpose of Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book.

Some readers have complained that Little Brother is too full of coincidences, that the evil government is made out to be much too stupid, and that not all of the tech stuff makes sense. I'm ambivalent about these criticisms. On one hand, they're almost undeniable. On the other, they're irrelevant. A more realistic book would have made a better instruction manual, yes, but it also would have been less exciting for a general audience. More importantly, it would have been less inspiring.

Because when I call Little Brother an instruction manual, I don't mean to suggest it will give you everything you need to know to turn an X-Box into a tool of revolution. Give up on that idea now, all ye who enter! The information about the Beats and Yippies is what gives it away. This is a book that aspires to be a manual for rewiring your brain. The story doesn't have to be probable or even believable, it just has to suck you in and provide a scaffolding for the information. The information doesn't have to be exact, it just has to be intriguing. The whole doesn't have to be a finely tuned item of aesthetic bliss, it just has to make readers say, "Oh cool! I wonder if..."

And then perhaps you'll do like me, and halfway through the book punch some stuff into Google to check out whether it exists. (ParanoidLinux? Not exactly. But close.) Or start thinking of people to give the book to -- I'm telling some of my high school students about it as well as a friend studying computer science. Because it's a great novel? No. Because it's great propaganda, both entertaining and thought-provoking, more modern and less clunky than The Jungle or Ralph 124C 41+, its ancestors. The strongest memory I have kept of my reading of Little Brother is not a memory of the characters or situations or style, but of the desire to join in fighting the powers that be, the desire to change the world. A naive desire, indeed, one the accumulated cynicism of my oh-so-many years seldom allows, but Little Brother broke through that cynicism with its passionate charm, which makes me think that for the kids who are its intended audience, it could be a wordful amphetamine, a jolt of ideas and possibilities, a manual of instructions for how to dream big.