"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

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Summary: A teenage hacker mobilizes fellow teens after another terrorist attack.

I don’t like hackers. They seem obnoxious and troublesome, breaking into files just because they can. So a novel featuring teenage hackers, who are likely breaking the law, didn’t appeal to me. But I kept reading that Cory Doctorow’s novel Little Brother was one of the best pieces of Young Adult Fiction.

They - whoever they are - were right.

I started reading this book, not expecting to like it and ended up ignoring my kids so I could finish it. It was entertaining, suspenseful and thought-provoking.

Little Brother is set in the near future in San Francisco. Marcus and his friends sneak out of school one day to play an online treasure-hunting game – Harajuku Fun Madness.  Marcus is a snotty punk, who likes feeling smarter than and superior to the adults around him.
“The Man was always coming down on me, just because I go through school firewalls like wet Kleenex, spoof the gait-recognition software, and nuke the snitch chips they track us with.”
While Marcus and his friends are on the streets of San Francisco, a terrorist attack occurs. Terrorists have bombed the Bay Bridge, cutting off the mainland from the rest of the city. Mass panic. Their friend Darryl is stabbed in the back in the chaos after the bombing and when the friends flag down a police car for help, they are instead thrown into a van, taken off American soil and wake up in a cell, alone.

Homeland Security, yes, the Department of Homeland Security of the United States of America, suspects that these high school kids are terrorists because they were close to the bomb at the time of the attack and not where they were supposed to be. Marcus is psychologically tormented, isolated, deprived and humiliated – everything but physically tortured.
“I’d broken a lot of rules all my life and I’d gotten away with it, by and large. Maybe this was justice. Maybe this was my past coming back to me. After all, I had been where I was because I’d snuck out of school.”
Marcus is finally released after he tells the passwords and codes to every piece of technology he has on him. His cell phone, his computer at home, anything you can think of, he provides information about, terrified into spilling his guts. Marcus is released with the threat that DHS will be watching him.

My biggest complaint about many of the YA novels out there is “Where are the parents?!” It seems like kids get into trouble and hide werewolves and vampires in their rooms while the parents obliviously go along. But Marcus’s parents are real characters with real viewpoints.

When Marcus stumbles home, his parents cry with relief that he’s alive. He’s too terrified about his recent brush with Homeland Security to even tell his parents the truth. He doesn’t even know if his friends made it out as well; he’s just so happy to be home and safe.
“Believe it or not, my parents made me go to school the next day. I’d only fallen into feverish sleep at three in the morning, but at seven the next day, my dad was standing at the foot of my bed, threatening to drag me out by the ankles. I managed to get up – something had died in my mouth after painting my eyelids shut – and into the shower.”
At school the next day, Darryl is still missing. Everyone else in the group is home safely except Marcus’ best friend Darryl. Marcus starts asking questions because he owes it to Darryl to get him home. Thugs from Homeland Security confront him on his way home, ordering him to shut up if he knows what’s good for him. Trembling, Marcus vows to bring down DHS, using technology, the power of the internet and a very real distrust of the government.

The humor of this book must be my kind of humor, because I grew to like Marcus’ views on many things, even as I agree (agreed?) with his dad about privacy and security concerns.
‘ “The Bill of Rights was written before data-mining," he said. He was awesomely serene, convinced of his rightness. “The right of freedom of association is fine, but why shouldn’t the cops be allowed to mine your social network to figure out if you’re hanging with gangbangers and terrorists?”
“Because it’s an invasion of my privacy!” I said.
“What’s the big deal? Would you rather have privacy or terrorists?” ‘
It leads to some great discussions the unlimited powers that government holds.
 “It’s unbelievable today, but there was a time when the government classed crypto as a munitions and made it illegal for anyone to export it or use it on national security grounds. Get that. We used to have illegal math in this country.”
I won’t tell you how it ends, but never underestimate the far reaching powers of Homeland Security. Almost anything can be done under the excuse of national security and that is frightening.

So yes, this book is about a teenage hacker who fights the government, but it’s so much more. It’s about cryptology, history, mathematics, writing computer programming code, social revolution, “fighting The Man,”  freedom and of course, teen angst. I’m so glad I read this.

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