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Little Brother (by Cory Doctorow): A bold, seditious and action-packed young adult novel. Marcus Yarrow’s a teenage hacker living in San Francisco who wants nothing more than to cut class, IM his friends on his school-issued laptop (without the school’s spyware monitoring him) and play in online scavenger hunts. But when terrorists bomb the Bay Bridge, his subversive habits get him scooped up by a Homeland Security dragnet and locked away in a “detention facility.” When he’s finally released, he wants nothing more than to create a secure network he and his pals can communicate on – and to find out why DHS won’t let one of his friends go. His encrypted network quickly turns into a way to humiliate Homeland Security, however – making 17-year-old Marcus Yarrow an enemy of the state.
Set maybe a year into the future, the San Francisco of Little Brother bristles with foreign but recognizable technology (XBoxes given away free in a Microsoft PR stunt, gait-recognition software, etc). The villains – school administrators, DHS interrogators, cops – speak in language that you might read today in any mainstream media outlet. After the Bay Bridge attack, civilians blithely accept the false dichotomy between privacy and security, grumbling but consenting to random frisking, showing ID when asked, and the like.
Doctorow lays the juvenile slang on a little thick in the first few pages of the book. Bear with it – like the first five minutes of Juno, the author needs to work it out of the system before getting to the actual meat of the story. It gets better, I promise. And if you can squint a little at how conveniently Marcus knows everything he needs to to make his case (a 17-year-old script kiddie reads Jane Jacobs? really?), you’ll be educated on some of the truly scary ways the U.S. has become less free. I’m already pretty paranoid, and it opened my eyes.
Doctorow doesn’t sacrifice plot for diatribe, though – the action moves at a steady and suspenseful pace. In addition to fighting the DHS, Marcus cares about all the things 17-year-olds care about: losing touch with his friends, making out with girls, cool alternative music, where to get the best burritos, etc. Even if the language comes out a little awkward at times, you know where the kid comes from.
“Don’t trust anyone over twenty-five” resounds throughout the book: more than a touch ironic, given the novel’s 36-year-old author. But if this novel moves anyone, it’ll move the kids who haven’t been inured by the banality of evil yet. I hope a copy of this book finds its way into the hands of someone who hates being told what to do, who fears the way the country’s going and who doesn’t think the solution is to vote in “more and better Democrats.” If they do find this book, they’ll find how easy it is to hack corporate and government surveillance, how important it is to stand up and get arrested for what you believe in, and – if we’re lucky – they’ll join a long list of heroes whose neighbors called them criminals at the time.
Meanwhile, I just hope I’m still young enough.