On Not Liking Little Brother

I haven’t read all the way to the end yet, so perhaps I should withhold comment, but my reactions to Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother are very similar to those of this reviewer:

If only we lived in a world where the people who work for the Department of Homeland Security were transparently one-dimensional and evil, if only DHS were massively more invasive into every facet of our lives instead of just having useless airport security checks, and if only Doctorow were a hacker who was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time during a terrorist attack. If only all of those would come true, then Doctorow would save the day….

It’s not that I disagree with any of the ideas put forth in this novel. For the most part, I strongly agree with them. It’s that the package in which they are wrapped is poorly considered, poorly argued, and poorly written. The ideas herein are important and absolutely must be discussed, but the execution of those ideas is so heavyhanded as to make the book near-unreadable.

That’s pretty much it. I really, really wanted to like this novel, and I really, really identified with the central concerns of the protag. But the actual execution was heavy-handed and graceless, and Doctorow seems to be oblivious to the vices of techno-rebellion that he transparently advocates.

[Spoilers!]

Take the “jamming” that the characters describe in the first half: randomly cloning the RFID chips of passersby, and swapping them out with other ID’s on the fly. The goal is to confound the data-mining software that the DHS is using to seek “terrorists”, which is superficially admirable. But they scramble credit cards and transit passes, doing permanent damage to the financial records of hordes of innocent people, and costing them thousands of dollars! It’s hard to see how this is morally different from the DHS’s wide net of harassment. At no point do the protags reflect on the fact that their pranks have real costs for innocent, uninvolved people–the only motives entertained for not going along with the scheme are cowardice or conformity.

Then there’s the ridiculous slogan “Don’t trust anyone over 25”, cribbed (with explicit acknowledgment) from the 60’s counterculture, then subjected to “slogan inflation”. This is just plain dumb. Sometimes adults know things; sometimes adolescents are stupid and pig-headed. The worship of youth and distrust of age were two of the worst aspects of the old counterculture, and they were two parts that didn’t need to be revived for the current generation. (Doctorow himself, who is in his thirties, seems to regard this as a joke–but the characters in the novel are awfully serious about it.)

And finally, as much as I hate to agree with the lame discussion-squashing civics teacher, the First Amendment really isn’t a carte blanche, as the protag tries to argue in one particularly cringe-inducing scene. There are legitimate restrictions on speech, and the right way to argue against the stupid, destructive, and illegal restrictions are to point out that they’re stupid, destructive, and illegal. Thumping your copy of the Constitution like a fundamentalist (a comparison made in the book itself) only makes you look like, well, a techno-libertarian fundamentalist.

As I’m reading, I keep hoping that these conflicts will eventually get some traction in the narrative, maybe giving way to a viewpoint that’s more nuanced and less adolescent. But I’m not seeing it. The protag is always vindicated and never chastened, and the viewpoints other than his own are always revealed to be stupid and wrong.

(For contrast, read LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, which both praises and subverts its anarchist society.)

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