The Challenge Remains: Doctorow's Little Brother Revisited
Elizabeth Anne Hull
This piece is expanded from Hull's commentary on the novel when it won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best SF of 2009.
Although it's considered a young adult novel - Cory Doctorow's protagonist is a senior in high school - Little Brother [Amazon|Powell's] speaks to a very serious adult concern: the era of restriction of personal liberty in the name of Homeland Security in a post-9-11 America. Anyone who has ever been annoyed about taking off shoes in an airport and being forbidden to carry a bottle of water past security (although allowed to buy an exorbitantly overpriced identical bottle before boarding the plane) or missed a plane due to an orange alert delay; anyone who has ever been hassled by officious quasi-authorities about security regulations in a school, city hall, courthouse, or other public building; anyone who considers private phone conversations none of anyone else's business; anyone who considers himself or herself a patriot but despises the Patriot Act - in short anyone who at one time or another who has felt that the current “security” measures are designed not to reassure us but to remind us and indeed convince us that we are in grave danger from subversives in our midst: every one of these persons will appreciate the story of Marcus Yallow, teenage hacker who gets caught up in a bomb threat, this time in the bay area around San Francisco and Oakland, California.
Set in a very near future, we see the world through the eyes of the kind of voters who elected Barack Obama, people who are used to being “dissed” - either because of their race or ethnicity or socio-economic level or immigration status, or even merely because of their age. And we see how the technology that is used to invade our personal privacy could be used to thwart authorities and to organize resistance to a totalitarian threat to America's way of life and philosophy of freedom, to live and let live. It is an old science fictional convention: the very technological change which poses a threat can be used to solve the problem.
For a teenager, Little Brother poses a challenge: do not let the system go unchallenged. For adults it does that also, but also serves to remind us that we shouldn't lose our faith in today's youth. And it dares us to make changes for the better before others restrict our freedom and force us to make changes we do not want.
The story is set in a dangerous time for writers who make rash predictions, the very near future, approximately 2010. Composed as it was while President George W. Bush was still in office, it cautions that “if this goes on,” we could have a third or even a fourth term of GWB, arranged by his Secretary of State and chief strategist, Kurt Rooney - a thinly disguised composite of Karl Rove with perhaps an echo of Dick Cheney in his Irish name as well as Donald Rumsfeld - a man so callous and cynical that he can claim that San Francisco was lucky: “They had the good fortune to have been blown to hell by some Islamic terrorists.”
But while that scenario didn't come to pass, perhaps a more important of his predictions did. As of today, no member of the top administration has been prosecuted. None of the defense contractors who did interrogations in the name of national security have been tried in a public court. Nearly a decade after 9-11-2001, millions and billions, perhaps even trillions, of war profits still line the pockets of the chief architects of the response to the destruction of the twin towers in New York City. The likelihood that anyone will ever be held responsible for the war that was sold to the public on the basis of national security - based on lies about weapons of mass destruction - grows dimmer by the day. We still can't bring a bottle of water to the gate at the airport and walk barefoot through the scanners, while at the same time we read periodically how yet another investigative reporter has been able to easily breach security with guns, knives, and explosives. So much for hope and “change you can believe in,” a phrase that takes on a bitterly ironic aura if you also believe “we get the government we deserve.”
The end of this story, hopefully, has yet to be written.