Retro Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow Reviewed by Glenda Funk

At the time of his suicide in January, Aaron Swartz was facing a million dollar fine and a possible 35 years in prison stemming from his impending prosecution for allegedly violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. While reading obits for Swartz and about the justice department’s legal pursuit of him for downloading thousands of documents from the JSTOR database via MIT, I found a tribute from YA author Cory Doctorow, a friend of Swartz. Indeed, Homeland, Doctorow’s follow-up to Little Brother, includes a cautionary afterword by Swartz.

Swartz and Doctorow shared similar philosophies about the Internet as an open space, as well as citizen’s rights to free speech and privacy. Swartz helped create the RSS feed, the Creative Commons website, and Reddit. He also fought tirelessly to defeat the SOPA legislation. While Swartz championed open access through legal battles and technology, Doctorow has sounded a siren about loss of privacy and freedom via the YA novels Little Brother (2008) and Homeland (2013).

Essentially, Little Brother—a smart allusion to George Orwell’s Big Brother idea in 1984—tells the story of seventeen-year-old Marcus Yallow, a.k.a. “win5ton” and what happens when a geeky teen with a few problems at school and a knack for computer hacking skips class on the wrong day and at the wrong time, the wrong time being during a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland.

In some ways, Marcus is a throwback to the anti-establishment figures of the 1960s. He’s constantly in conflict with “The Man,” who at school is assistant principal Benson. Marcus uses his vast computer hacking skills to “subvert this school’s security system” and has “supplied security countermeasures to…fellow students,” says the accusatory Benson. Additionally, Benson suspects Marcus of playing a role in the theft of SAT tests the previous year. In his relentless pursuit of Marcus, Benson embodies a microcosm of what happens in a society that trusts no one and subverts the privacy and legal rights of citizens to gather “reliable intelligence” in its quest to procure security.

Thus, when Homeland Security accuses Marcus of having bombed the Bay Bridge and labels him a terrorist, he and his friend Darryl disappear into the bowls of Gitmo by the Bay, an obvious reference to Guantanamo Bay. Marcus endures torture and humiliation, but his experience transforms him into an activist intent on protecting his friends, family, teachers, and town.

At times the political rhetoric of Little Brother seems pedantic, such as when one of Doctorow’s characters delivers a speech:

 

If you love freedom, if you think the human condition is dignified by privacy, by the right to be left alone, by the right to explore your weird ideas provided you don’t hurt others, then you have common cause with the kids whose web-browsers and cell phones are being used to lock them up and follow them around. If you believe that the answer to bad speech is more speech – not censorship – then you have a dog in the fight.

 

Still, Little Brother makes readers ask important questions: To what lengths should we go to insure safety against terrorists? How does stripping citizens of their constitutional and legal rights and labeling the accused as terrorists and enemy combatants undermine our civil rights? Have computers mutated our world in such a way that we should forgo certain rights? What would you as a teen do if you were accused of being a terrorist or enemy combatant? I posed this chilling question to my students. It rendered them speechless.

Reading Little Brother also offers a mini crash course into the world of computer hacking and security systems for the uninitiated. Knowing that the scenarios Doctorow describes are both plausible and real lends an air of verisimilitude to the story that makes the tech jargon riveting to lay readers such as myself.

“All writing is political,” says author Barbara Kingsolver. Whether social or political, thinking about the truths authors speak through imaginative literature is a way teachers can push back against paradigms that emphasize metrics over qualitative narrative. Through fiction, we can invite students–who have grown up in a Patriot Act world and who take the absence of privacy and open access to even our own case law for granted–to consider the social and political issues that inform their lives.

Little Brother offers both an excellent companion piece for 1984 and students’ studies of American Government and public policy. As Thomas Jefferson wrote and Doctorow reminds readers: “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

We the governed must take responsibility for actively safeguarding our civil rights. The rights activists like Aaron Swartz fought to preserve live in the fictional Marcus Yallows and come to life in books like Little Brother.

Glenda Funk is a self-professed news junky who balms her insomnia late at night reading The Huffington Post. She teaches senior English, speech, and a dual-enrollment Communication and rhetoric class a Highland High School in Pocatello, Idaho. She’s a NBCT: AYA/ELA and opines on twitter @gmfunk and on her blog at http://www.evolvingenglishteacher.blogspot.com.