Friday, October 24, 2014

Little Brother

I love this cover.
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

I picked this up because of Banned Books Week.  Little Brother was supposed to be the assigned book in a school-wide summer project, but it was pulled at the last minute.  (Read all about it!)  Doctorow, who runs the BoingBoing site, said that it seemed to have happened because of politics, so I was instantly intrigued.  Not because of sex?  Not because of any of the usuals?  This I have to see.  So here's the story (written, note, in 2006):

Marcus is a high school student in San Francisco, "one of the most surveilled people in the world."  In this not-too-distant-future scenario, schools give students notebook computers to do all their work (and keep tabs on them) and have cameras in the hallways.  Marcus, however, is a hacker kid who takes great joy in circumventing all this control.  He and three friends decide to ditch school for a couple of hours to hunt down a new clue in an international game...and are caught on the streets during a terrorist attack that kills thousands.  They are picked up by Homeland Security forces and interrogated for days.  One of them disappears.  The DHS uses the attacks to institute a sort of martial law and ever-increasing surveillance on the American populace, especially in the Bay Area.  As citizens are harassed daily and lose more rights all the time, Marcus and other young people start up a secret online community dedicated to fighting for their Constitutional rights.  If any of them are caught, they will be treated as terrorists....

This is an exciting story that is not quite as exaggerated as we would wish.  Surveillance and privacy are real concerns that we should be paying attention to--and keep in mind that this was written before Edward Snowden let us know that the most paranoid of us were not nearly paranoid enough when it comes to privacy.  Doctorow delivers the excitement and tries to educate.

The education comes at a little bit of a price, since the story often comes to a halt in order to execute an infodump about online security.  You will learn a lot about prime numbers, public and private keys, and other encryption issues.  Also some history about free speech issues, yay, and resistance to infringement of rights.  I frequently felt like I was reading something my husband wrote, since Internet privacy and security (and rights) are favorite topics of his.  I already knew about prime numbers and so on.  However, this was Doctorow's mission: to teach kids about these issues in a format that would be enjoyable and make the importance of it clear.

Doctorow wrote this in 2006, and it's pretty easy to see that he was not happy with the Bush administration, the Patriot Act, and the DHS.  Or Fox News, for that matter.  I don't really follow BoingBoing, but I'm thinking maybe I should start, because I would like to know how he feels after six years of a new administration.  Obama continued, and usually expanded, many of the programs that Doctorow so clearly disapproves of.  The NSA is barely mentioned in Little Brother, but I bet it would get some space now.

However, that is not what I would ask Doctorow if I could.  My question would have to do with a minor character who appears in the first part of the book.  When I read the description of her, I thought "gee, she sounds like Rat" (in Daniel Pinkwater's Snarkout Boys books).  At the end of the book, there's a bibliography of recommended reading, mostly about media and online issues, and Alan Mendelsohn, Boy From Mars is recommended.  Doctorow is evidently a big Pinkwater fan--I found quite a few mentions on BoingBoing, such as this recent article calling him "Pynchon for Kids," which would explain a lot about why I like The Crying of Lot 49 so much-- and from there I discovered that Pinkwater has produced podcast read-alouds of his books!  Let joy reign unconfined!  (I have no time to listen to audio and so I really don't follow the podcast world.  Every time I try to listen to one, I get interrupted every 5 seconds, so it seems kind of pointless. The result is that I have to be told things like this.)  All that to say that my question is: does that character have a little bit of Rat in her?  Because if so, that is awesome.

Final conclusion: Little Brother is a book that most people should probably read.  For one thing, it's a good story.  Most teens will think it's great (my daughter officially endorses it), and adults will find it stuffed with things to think and talk about.  First Amendment, people! 

You can almost certainly find this book at your friendly neighborhood public library, as I did, but if not, or if you prefer e-books, Doctorow released it for free online.  Amazon is hoping you haven't noticed that, and will sell it to you on Kindle for about eight bucks.

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