Little Brother is watching you – Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother

In a world that has changed in the last seven years from one which sallowly loved democracy, complacent in the knowledge that we could vote into a world in which democracy and its underlying principles have been betrayed in a new Cold War, Little Brother is a timely update to Orwell’s 1984. Written with Cory’s typical breakneck speed, the book continues his exploration of the way in which technology can and will change the world. Instead of looking at social conventions, this time his societal re-alignment is firmly aimed at the political establishment.

Marcus, who begins the book with the handle W1n5ton, is a 17 year old student who makes a fateful decision to bunk part of school lunch to follow up on a clue in a game and is caught up in the destruction of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. Sequestered for questioning, he is freed on the condition that he tells no-one of the secret incarcerations. Incensed, he sets up Xnet as a way of keeping a free network running and allows people to arrange themselves into groups who resist the increasing tyranny. Abandoning his handle, Marcus moves from anonymous insurrection to telling his parents and seeing them effect change through investigative journalism and their networks.

Its heart is the Declaration of Independence asserting that Government is for the people by the people – a fact that politicians of all classes have clearly forgotten and that they must re-learn. In part it is tempting to see this as a re-assertion of V for Vendetta in the use of the mask for anonymity but Doctorow reflects the actions of groups like Anonymous and security implications of Paranoid Linux distribution and TOR anonymisers. Doctorow sets up straw men arguments with the increasingly reactionary teachers which allow him to deliver the arguments for free government and to show the hollowness the War on Terror’s rhetoric. Gradually, as citizen journalism takes hold, there is a change in policy which appears somewhat suddenly to begin righting the world.

What is most powerful about this novel is its update of Orwell’s 1984. Whereas Winston gave into Big Brother, becoming crushed perhaps like Darryl in Little Brother, Marcus begins to explore how to use technology to effect a grass roots change to the world. Doctorow delivers some long info dumps about how to hack hardware to make it free which can be irritating but they are enlightening. Orwell’s dream of a utopia had been shattered by the Stalinist state’s use of terror on its own people and his novel reflects a lack of hope that the individual could effect change. Doctorow, instead, finds hope in technology and dreams and he is able to demonstrate that there is a way to challenge tyranny.

In essence it is essential that we begin watching back and being less complacent about the state. Little Brother is an entertaining thriller which tells a rattling good story as well as being political. I can’t help but link it to Neal Shusterman’s horrifying yet readable Unwind in asking one simple question: what world are we living in today?

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