book-reviews

Little Brother

by Cory Doctorow

Rating: ★★★★

Little Brother is a story about hacking technology, the authoritarian state and the defiant spirit of youth. I loved it. From even before the story, in the front matter where Doctorow outlined his opinions on government surveillance, piracy and books, this novel was resonating with me. I shouldn't have been surprised, I did start reading it from a free download page which specifically prohibited DRM.

The content of the story is all too familiar-seeming. The main character is caught up in a terrorist attack and, trying to flag down help for an injured friend, finds himself instead arrested -- except he's not arrested, he's detained without charge by the Department of Homeland Security, and coerced into handing over all his personal information. When he's finally released, he's told he is a perpetually marked man.

But he doesn't submit. A hacker by nature, he dives into a project for protecting his hometown from the rampaging DHS, hooking up anonymous communication networks and helping render the DHS's monitoring systems useless. In doing so, he becomes the focus point for an anti-authoritarian movement among the youths of San Francisco.

While clearly a coming-of-age novel with all the romantic subplot that implies, Little Brother reads as fundamentally real. The technologies and movements described in the book all exist, and in some ways the story can be read as a how-to manual of DIY surveillance-avoidance, with a healthy dose of activism. The actions of both organisations and individuals all mirror things we can see going on around us, to a chilling degree.

A couple of trivial flaws -- the outdated reference to leetspeak, a few simplifications of technical details -- aside, there is little to complain about with this book. Whether you read it as an inspirational tale in defence of liberty, a cyber-heroic fantasy or a guide to self-defence, Little Brother is a great story, and one which every young netizen should be aware of. Recommendations all around.