Thursday, November 27, 2008

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I have a very bad habit of postponing blogging about really good books because I doubt I can do justice. But I promised I would write about this one tonight. Yesterday, driving to my dad's house for Thanksgiving, I finished listening to Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. I picked it up because of the name Doctorow on the cover. "Wow!" I thought, "First Mel Brooks' son writes a book (World War Z by Max Brooks) and now E.L. Doctorow's son!" However, Wikipedia says there is probably not a connection between the two. BUT I am more than glad I listened to the book. It is a heck of a story and makes you think also. Marcus Yarrow, narrator, gets scooped up by Homeland Security guards along with three friends in the panic filled moments after terrorists blow up the Oakland Bridge in San Francisco. They are taken to a secret offshore prison site and subjected to harsh grilling even though they are obviously just innocent high schoolers. Marcus, in particular, is singled out for excessive cruelty because he keeps demanding a lawyer and insisting that his rights are being violated. When they are finally freed, three of the four friends are traumatized and haunted by the fact that their fourth companion, who had been injured in the melee, is nowhere to be found. In the days and weeks that follow, Marcus vows to take down the out-of-control DHS (Department of Homeland Security). His weapon is technology. The excesses in violations of privacy and fear tactics that are put into place after the 2nd major terror attack on America are not hard to believe in view of what has happened in the wake of 911. In this story, the president is never named, but references are made to him being elected a third time and running for the fourth, clearly predicting what life might be like if the Bush regime were to remain in power past the second term. I do not thinkI would have enjoyed this book nearly as much if I had read it prior to this November's election. Now, with a change in administration, I have some hope that our society can pull back from excessive fearmongering and assaults on our constitutional rights. Still, the things described are far too close to our present reality to seem overly far-fetched.

Along with the suspense and an inevitable but very sweetly depicted teen romance, there are lots of things to think about. The technology Doctorow describes, with ubiquitous cameras, gait recognition devices, RFIDs in everything from credit cards to BART passes, online snooping, phone taps, and other devices that track and control all citizens effectively turns San Francisco into a police state within days after the attack. Marcus and friends quickly realize that their computers are useless, and turn to reconfigured Xboxes to build an underground that goes to war with the DHS. One thing this book did for me was change my views about hackers and hacking. Now I realize that people who tinker with devices and try to see what they can do with them are pioneers as often as destructive bad actors. Without hackers, we would never know whether security technology really works or not. Sad to say, all too often it does not work, and people have a false sense of security about the effectiveness thereof. Really, did you ever think removing your shoes at the airport made us safer? Another thing this book makes you think about is intellectual property. Doctorow joins the chorus who call for more freedom to use, adapt, mashup, and otherwise participate in shared creativity, certainly a trend today. And he practices what he preaches: This book is FREE at Creative Commons, Gutenberg, and the author's own website. If you want to learn a heck of a lot while getting caught up in a riveting story, all for free, here is one link, the one to his site where you can download the entire book:
And while you are there, look around! Unless you are a geek to the level of Doctorow/Marcus, you will find lots to learn, both from this website and from the book itself. In fact I may just have to blog about that in another entry. And before I sign off, here is a sad shame: No kid can get to this book at school, at least at the site I just shared. No librarian can show it. Look at the URL. Are we making ourselves safer by blocking this and other sites that kids should be able to use? Oh wait! I just used a new-to-me URL shortener,, not because the address was long but to get rid of THE WORD in the actual URL. So at least this blog might get past some filters. But then if you try to bring up the site...probably won't work for you. Aruggh. That. is. not. what. filters. are. for.

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