Little Brother

While the majority of his science-fictional peers forsake the genre?s historical commitment to near-term speculations and politically conscious fiction, fleeing for the bland safety of Middle-earth or Wizard School or Interstellar Empires, Cory Doctorow plunges headlong into the venerable tradition of monitory, near-future prophecy. He?s a smart and talented and inventive writer, still as youthful and energetic and optimistic, despite approaching age 40, as he was upon his precocious debut in 1998; and his ability to function on the bleeding edge of technology and culture is daily exhibited by his partnered curatorship of one of the web?s most popular and influential blogs, Boing Boing. All of these qualities are evident from page one of his newest novel, Little Brother, the latest in a long line of anti-authoritarian books.

Ever since Anthony “Buck” Rogers sought to overthrow America?s evil Han overlords in the pages of his 1928 Amazing Stories debut, “Armageddon 2419 A.D.,” science fiction has concerned itself with prophecies of doom for the United States and its unique and transcendental form of democracy. (This hortatory mode actually began in England, all the way back in 1871, with George Chesney?s The Battle of Dorking, a work that sparked scores of other John Bull-in-danger scenarios.) Almost immediately thereafter, writers as diverse and as diversely talented as John W. Campbell, Robert Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, and Jerry Sohl took up the gauntlet, depicting Old Glory besmirched under the thumb of forces inimical to our revered values. By 1962, the format had reached some kind of mad apotheosis and larger cultural significance and awareness with the release of the fictionalized documentary Red Nightmare, in which narrator Jack Webb was our Virgil on a journey across a hellish USA overrun with Commies.

At the same time, a second literary strain foresaw the possibility of decay and dictatorship from within: homegrown worms burrowing within our own subverted institutions. Sinclair Lewis conjured up a nativist presidential dictator in It Can’t Happen Here (1935). And of course Orwell?s 1984(published in 1949) — though focused on Britain rather than the U.S. — implicitly limned a dystopia that had sprouted stepwise over time on domestic soil, rather than being imposed from without by foreigners. This sense of a democracy betrayed by factions that had lost sight of the nation?s seminal values naturally received a huge boost in the 1960s, reflecting the prevalent mistrust of government. A late-period instance of this formulation is the recently filmed graphic novel by Alan Moore, V for Vendetta (1982-88).

Both types of science fiction — and their hybrid offspring — lend themselves to certain shared plot devices, a stew of motifs from the American Revolution, the French Resistance, and other historical rebellions. A simmering revolt against seemingly impossible odds, led by a charismatic hero of the underground and his loyal posse, including one or more babe-licious fellow female freedom fighters. Treachery, sacrifice, atrocities, temporary defeats, and ultimate victories. Noble speeches, cruel dictates, torture, and resistance. Often, the rebels will enlist or invent new technology to aid their cause, explicitly endorsing America?s Edisonian virtues and privileging the small, idealistic, and flexible forces over the ossified, cynical, superior powers.

Such stories are among the most stirring and topical and edifying SF novels ever written. As has been famously argued, Orwell?s book alone probably forestalled the very future it so convincingly painted as inevitable. But of course, such a potent toolbox works perfectly well for any ideology: William Luther Pierce?s reprehensible The Turner Diaries (1978) might well be the black sheep of this genre, but it’s no less powerful for that.

Now comes Cory Doctorow?s Little Brother, a book that fits into this tradition as if organically grown from the seeds of its predecessors. Luckily, Doctorow and his novel are on the side of the angels, i.e., America?s Founding Fathers and a contemporary citizenry that?s proud, thoughtful, and knows the true meaning of patriotism.

Little Brother is the first-person tale of Marcus Yallow, a 17-year-old student in San Francisco on the proverbial day after tomorrow. Marcus is a Good Boy and a Nice Kid from a fine middle-class liberal home, despite exhibiting the familiar adolescent impulses to mess around and goof off in harmless fashion. He also happens to be a cyber-whiz. The plot is set in motion when, on a day Marcus and friends skip school, al-Qaeda chooses to blow up the Bay Area Bridge and the underwater BART tunnels. In the chaos, Marcus and crew are hauled off the streets in a military sweep and remanded to extralegal inquisitors. After some harrowing physical and mental harassment based on his rebellious attitude and past misdemeanors, Marcus is eventually deemed a non-threat and turned loose.

Back home, he quickly discovers that, in the face of this assault, America is well on its way to becoming an anti-privacy police state, with the Department of Homeland Security monitoring the travel, purchases, and thinking of innocent citizens. Angry both at his own treatment and the general shrinking of freedoms, Marcus begins to lead a teenage resistance movement.

Cobbling together an alternate, privacy-friendly internet out of simple video-game consoles, Marcus — as the mysterious and anonymous M1k3y — foments small but cumulatively stinging acts of culture-jamming, becoming a glamorous icon of rage against the machine. Aided by pals and dodging the authorities, Marcus gets a nerve-wracking crash course in the dangers, thrills, and responsibilities of dissent, before the whole situation ramps up to a climactic battle of small and righteous versus big and mean-spirited. Doctorow?s major accomplishment, from which all else flows, is his faithful and naturalistic inhabiting of the consciousness of Marcus, encompassing the young man’s fearful response to his initial confinement, the contours of a puppy-love affair, and his fiery resentment at the abuses of authority. I suspect this verisimilitude has something to do with the proverbial Golden Age of SF (and the Golden Age of an SF author?s mentality) being 13. This is a novel where satirist P. J. O?Rourke?s formulation of “age and guile beating youth and innocence every time” is given the hearty and convincing boot. Which is not to say that Marcus has a cakewalk to victory. Doctorow is careful to insert realistic setbacks and roadblocks and partial victories into his tale, just as he fairly offers the arguments of the authorities.

The author is of course in love with technology and romanticizes it no end. His paean to computer programming at the close of Chapter 7 is practically a love song. As one who, in another lifetime, coded up boring COBOL routines for the insurance industry, I?d beg to differ about the wonderfulness of all programming. But the core ethos of SF revolves around technology, and Marcus?s ingenious hacking makes for some clever reading.

In the spirit of its dystopian forebears, Doctorow’s novel has a dual goal. First, of course, to entertain with scintillating speculations and an exciting adventure; second, to propagandize on behalf of individual rights, political accountability, and the power of communal action. The book reflects this bipartite mandate neatly, alternating action and theorizing, with each half of the equation balancing and justifying the other. If Doctorow’s hope is to update Orwell for the iPod generation, Little Brother brings the dream into more than virtual reality.