Sunday, October 4, 2009

Readings 2K9: Little Brother

Little Brother
by Cory Doctorow

Your ability to appreciate this book — alternately frustrating and engaging — will vary depending on how much you believe Doctorow’s aware of his effects. I think he knows what he’s doing, and I quite liked the book as a result.

It’s the story of a teen hacker, Marcus, wrongfully arrested following a terrorist attack. He’s mistreated, but eventually released; a friend, arrested with him, is not released. So Marcus dedicates himself to bringing down the government in revenge, and to fighting to keep the US a free society even as increasingly draconian laws are enacted to prevent more terrorism.

Marcus is a bit of a jerk. To say the least. He tells himself he’s acting on behalf of his friend, but his actions don’t follow — he lets his friend’s dad think his son’s dead, for example. And he doesn’t really think about the inconvenience he causes to other people in the course of his civil disobedience crusade (it has been argued that he’s also irresponsible in discounting the harm he’s doing to valid anti-terrorism efforts; I can’t agree, as I think the point of the book is that no anti-terrorism initiative that interferes with a free society is legitimate).

I think Doctorow’s aware of this, because the reality is that Winston’s activities in the book as an outlaw hacker don’t really have any effect. He helps organise a rock concert that gets shut down. He forms a group of disaffected youth which is instantly infiltrated. In no way does anything he does actually initiate change — until he starts working with society, in the form of going to a newspaper and getting his story out to the world at large. This leads to him being arrested again, and tortured; and ultimately to a nicely ambiguous ending, which strikes me as entirely realistic.

In the end, the moral of the story isn’t that Winston is right. He frequently isn’t. The point of the story, what we’re left with, is the importance of paying attention to stories like his. The understanding not only that things like the suspension of habeas corpus are wrong, but that it is in part up to us to pay attention to the world around us and to act to prevent these wrongs, whether by voting or by volunteering or by financially supporting organisations we believe in. It’s a book about the importance of activism; about its frustrations, about how it can be done wrong, and also about how it can be done right.

It is also, incidentally, an sf book about a small group of outcasts fighting an evil empire, which, as I’ve previously observed, is a recurrent trope in genre literature. These things often test my suspension of disbelief because they tend to assume that the small group is smarter than the evil empire — leaving aside the number of smart people there must be within the empire. Here, though, Doctorow challenges that easy assumption. Winston thinks he’s smarter than the government and the adults around him. The book conclusively shows that he isn’t. The government does stupid things; they also do smart things. Winston does smart things; he also does stupid things, and often rationalises them to himself as being smart things. It’s that willingness to have smart characters be stupid that makes the book work, and that helps convince me Doctorow knew what he was doing all along.

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