BOOK REVIEW | Little Brother by Cory Doctorow Image

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is a tale about tech-savvy teenagers as they rebel against a Department of Homeland Security crackdown following a terrorist attack on San Fransisco. A piece of YA fiction that even adults can enjoy — it’s YA largely because of its teenage protagonists and its educational aim at young people — Little Brother is the 2009 Prometheus Award winner for best libertarian novel. Little Brother also won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and was a finalist for the Hugo Award.

Little Brother is set entirely in San Fransisco, California, in the very near future. Much of the technology in the story is already available, and what is not can easily be conceived as being on the horizon. The story is told entirely in the first person, from the point of view of the main character, Marcus Yallow. Marcus at first goes by the handle w1n5t0n (Winston in leetspeak, a homage to George Orwell’s 1984, as is the title of the book) but later switches to M1k3y (which could be a reference to the computer Mike in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress).

As the story opens, we are introduced to Marcus and three of his friends — Jolu (Jose Luis), Van (Vanessa), and best friend, Darryl — who ditch school to play an ARG (Alternate Reality Game) called Harajuku Fun Madness in and around the city. They happen to have the misfortune of being in the wrong part of town when terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge. In the chaos and confusion that follows, they get picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and then subjected to several days of interrogation and psychological torture in a “Gitmo by the Bay” before being released (with the exception of Darryl) with threats to keep quiet about their experience…or else. But once set free, Marcus and his friends are disturbed to see their city being turned into a police state.

Marcus resolves to fight back against the DHS, to restore civil rights and liberties and to free Darryl. He soon becomes the unofficial leader of a growing, decentralized movement of rebellious teenagers. But his covert struggle starts to put a strain on his relationships with his family and friends.

Among my complaints about Cory’s Makers were that the broad scope allowed his progressivism to bleed into the story at various levels (e.g., general setting, plot, characterization, character observations, educational rants) and that many of the technological innovations he portrayed were kitschy novelty items rather than truly useful and world-changing. The plot of Little Brother forces Cory to avoid both of these pitfalls. Here, for the most part, we get to see Cory where he really shines — writing about open source software, security (physical, computer, and internet), encryption, RFID cloning, geeky pop culture, civil liberties, and bashing police statism and the War on Terror.

There are some good observations: The terrorists win when we go into security overkill out of fear. Cops enjoy special privileges, immunities, and double standards. City street and parking regulations create a predatory environment. The DHS as a conquering/occupying army. Public schools and the mainstream media as propagandists and profiteers, uncritically accepting the government line. Crypto laws until the 1990s actually made certain kinds of math illegal. Marcus’s dad likens the post-terrorist attack world to a lifeboat situation, which, as we know, statists love to use to justify all manner of “necessary” evils (if they even see them as evils). I could have done without the random references to freegans and to Domino’s bankrolling ultra-crazy politicians who think that global warming and evolution are satanic plots, however.

Little Brother wouldn’t be a Cory Doctorow novel if it didn’t have a significant educational aim. There are Afterwards written by famed security expert Bruce Schneier and Xbox hacker Andrew “bunnie” Huang. Cory has even included a bibliography pointing readers to sources where they can learn more about the issues, technology, and techniques portrayed in the novel.

Though the many educational speeches by various characters in Makers dragged down the novel, they are less of a problem here in Little Brother. Here the first person POV makes them feel more natural, like Marcus is telling you his story and having to explain how things work so that you’ll understand. In Makers, with multiple third-person POVs, the characters would lecture each other, often unnecessarily, purely for the benefit of the reader. It just didn’t feel natural.

Still, the writing in Little Brother is mediocre. Here’s an example of awkward, repetitious writing:

I was ready for this. I gave them everything: server address, login, password. This didn’t matter. I didn’t keep any email on my server. I downloaded it all and kept it on my laptop at home, which downloaded and deleted my mail from the server every sixty seconds. They wouldn’t get anything out of my email — it got cleared off the server and stored on my laptop at home.

In the last three sentences we are told three times that Marcus doesn’t keep his email on his server, three times that the email is downloaded, and twice that it is stored on his laptop at home. It’s not all this bad — don’t get me wrong — but the writing is generally not great, sometimes very clumsy.

The novel suffers artistically because the educational aspect is heavy-handed and too dominant. As in Makers, it sometimes gets repetitious too. For example, we are unnecessarily told more than once how Microsoft makes its money by charging game companies for the right to make Xbox games and spending a lot of effort on countermeasures to prevent people from running unauthorized games. This just isn’t an important point about which we need to be reminded.

There’s also a kind of solipsistic feeling to Makers and Little Brother. In both novels, we’re rarely presented with any information about the world beyond the limited settings in which the action takes place. We don’t get to see much in the way of repercussions on the rest of the world from the action taking place in the novels. In Little Brother, it seems like the DHS crackdown only happens in San Fransisco and so the teenage rebellion is limited to that city as well. I don’t see why this should be the case, despite the terrorist attack occurring in San Fransisco. Certainly the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to government policies that affect more than just New York City.

But the writing is not so bad that the novel cannot be enjoyable. And, as I mentioned, the educational aspect works better when presented from the  first-person perspective than in Makers. In both novels, Cory does a good job of explaining things clearly for laymen. Another problem that I had with Makers is also mitigated in Little Brother. Makers had an almost adolescent excess, particularly in its characterization. This may just be Cory’s writing style. In any case, it works better when the protagonists are actually adolescents.

Because its libertarian aspects help to make up for its deficiencies in quality of writing, and because it is a better novel than Makers in the ways I’ve discussed, I do recommend reading Little Brother. It is a particularly good book to give to young geeks.

Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow

Though not an anarchist himself, Cory does not portray anarchism in a negative light in Little Brother. In one scene, during a debate in class, Marcus positively references the Declaration of Independence’s endorsement of revolution. One of his fellow students argues that the Declaration of Independence and the revolutionary war were against a monarch. We have democratically-elected representatives now, so the colonists’ reasons for rebelling don’t apply to the present-day rulers of the United States. Perhaps without realizing the anarchist implications, Marcus responds to this with “I didn’t vote for them.”

Later on, Marcus tells someone that we can’t wait for freedom to be handed to us. “Freedom is something you have to take for yourself.”

There are a couple of explicit references to anarchism as well. Marcus happens upon an anarchist bookstore and revisits it at least once. He spots in the store a t-shirt for sale with an Emma Goldman quote on it — “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.” — that strikes a chord with him, and resolves to buy it.

Ultimately, however, Cory is not a radical. Don’t read Little Brother expecting an anarchist utopia; you’ll be sorely disappointed.


Actually, despite knowing ahead of time that Cory doesn’t do anything radical with his teenage rebellion, I was still disappointed in the ending. As with Makers, it seems like nothing really changes. Cory settles for playing it safe. Local authorities kick the DHS out, to be sure, exercising a little nullification. But the main politicians and agents behind the crackdown and torture get off scot-free. That’s not necessarily a bad thing from a literary standpoint, if one’s aim is to illustrate how broken the system is.

It’s Marcus’s response that is the big letdown. The boy who recited radical words of revolution and led a resistance movement against the DHS ends with calling on his fellow American subjects…er, citizens to get out and vote. Seriously? You were kidnapped, tortured, hunted, and yes, terrorized by your own government, and you think some sort of “rock the vote” campaign will fix things? Give me a break.

3 / 5 stars     

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About the Author

Geoffrey Allan Plauché Executive Editor

Geoffrey is an Aristotelian-Liberal political philosopher, an adjunct instructor for Buena Vista University, the founder and executive editor of Prometheus Unbound, and the webmaster of The Libertarian Standard. His work has appeared in Libertarian Papers, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the Journal of Value Inquiry, and Transformers and Philosophy. He lives in Edgewood, KY with his wife and two children.

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