by Kyt Dotson
The title of Cory Doctorow’s young adult book Little Brother is entirely a play on the parental triggering phrase, “Big Brother is watching you.” Big Brother is not a reference to a terrible television show from the 1990s where a bunch of hapless people were packed into a house for the enjoyment of a viewing audience; instead it’s a reference to the ubiquitous talking head from George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. A symbol of the panopticon, the surveillance society augmented with the tyrannical abuse of governmental powers as a critique of where our civilization might go if we let go of our humanity and allowed bureaucracy free rein.
On the other hand, there’s Little Brother, an underdog story about what happens in a society slowly sliding into surveillance where the underdog has just enough technology to stay under the radar, slip through the cracks, and hide in the numerous, although small, chinks in the gaze of the government. Big Brother was a propaganda spokesperson, a giant face appearing on televisions to tell people what to think, and how to think it.
Little Brother is the youth, looking for a way out from under the government’s control of thought.
In the story a 9-11 style terrorist attack occurs in San Francisco involving the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Seventeen-year-old Marcus Yallow finds himself and his friends caught up in the aftermath of the attack, including being apprehended and held as an enemy combatant by the Department of Homeland Security. This electrifying event catapults Marcus and his friends into a frenzied attempt to escape shadowing by the government and to work against the slowly encroaching police state that overtakes the city.
As for the science, it’s a near-future story that utilizes currently available technology to make observations about how they could be used by the youth culture to form their own insider-cultures. Featuring majorly are secure forms of Linux that can be loaded onto Xboxes to create highly cryptographically-protected networks for communication; how people can use cryptographic keys to sign and authenticate communication.
It’s also ultimately a young adult novel, addressing the challenges and frustrations of being on the cusp of adulthood and tied up in something much bigger than yourself. Mitigating that frustration by taking some control back from the government and dismissive parents with the technology at hand—it’s almost an educational novel on the harsh reality of reality and how the intersection of the government and our lives can really demolish our sense of security.
Protests against the government-led police state appear in the story along with mass-gassing of crowds (accepted due to the fear of terrorism.) The newly formed Occupy Wall Street movement reminds me a little bit of the reversal that Little Brother tries to insinuate but on a larger scale—surveying the surveillance. All of the Occupy protests have shown that with the ubiquity of cameras it’s not just the authorities who have the capability to observe, but the protesters themselves; for every person out there there’s almost one camera. No encounter with the state goes without being recorded from half-a-dozen angles.
In the end, Little Brother is a story about knowing who your friends are about how accountability works. It’s a coming of age story for Marcus and the reader. The book makes its anthropological mission to critique and make sense of the overbearing abuses of authority meted out on a city terrified by an event that mimicked the events of 9-11 and the upwell of irritation and fury by the youth at the kowtowing servility by adults to authoritarian regimes and unwillingness to drag themselves out of their comfort zones.
It is not a romantic portrayal, if people were looking for one. In the end, all the near-future technology doesn’t do much to stop the crushing capability of the government; but it does do enough to tell the story, move Marcus through the plot; and give him his own revelations about how the world works and how he can be a part of it.
Doctorow does a good job of painting a city a lot like the ones that many in the US live in and what might come down if there’s another massive terrorist attack. He also employs a number of modern-day technologies in fashions that people might not expect them to be used—and it would delight many conspiracy theorist minds in how the various parties move in the shadows, playing pantomime politics against one another.
In spite of the tragedy of politics in the story, Little Brother did leave me with a sense of hope.
We all have the tools we need in our hands to resurface our culture in the event of the culture-evaporating rise of a tyrannical police state such as in Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Each and every one of us is a little brother and a little sister.
In the end, all you need is a camera and a voice.