Thursday, May 15, 2008

Review: Little Brother

I am of two minds about Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (free download under the creative commons license). Billed as a young adult science fiction novel, it's a cautionary tale of a young man who is caught up in the insanity that is the war on terror.

The protagonist, Marcus, is playing hooky from school when a band of terrorists blow up the San Francisco Bay Bridge. In the ensuing panic, his group of friends gets picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and then is taken into a Guantanamo Bay type prison system. After being nearly tortured and interrogated, Marcus is set free but told that he will be watched carefully. Despite that caution, he is determined to buck the system and starts an underground movement by distributing secure Linux versions, foiling security devices, creating a web of trust key-signed system, and setting up blogs and videos to undermine the DHS's credibility.

Along the way, he gets in trouble with his father, the school system, finds himself a girlfriend, and learns to hold press conferences in gaming environments. Doctorow worked for the EFF, so most of the technologies explained, described, and depicted in the novel are described correctly.

The writing style isn't great, but compares just as favorably to the latest John Varley novel, for instance. (That's not saying much, at his best, John Varley can write Doctorow into the ground, but Varley has not been himself lately) The teenager voice is well done, and the exposition while boring for a computer scientist probably wouldn't be so for its target audience.

While I like the message (who wouldn't be for privacy, for instance?), I'm at least partly concerned that the kind of attitude Doctorow espouses also leads to the kind of privacy paranoia that greeted ads in Gmail, for instance. That kind of simplistic thinking (spam filters, for instance, also have to read your email to be effective, and we didn't see the privacy paranoids lobby against those) creates a lot of noise and doesn't actually help the kind of effective debate we need to have as a society about the nature of privacy and freedom, and how to best protect it. Doctorow's novel definitely does not present the nuanced view of privacy that we need to have. For instance, I myself side with David Brin's Transparent Society approach, and think that ultimately that's the approach that will succeed, rather than Doctorow's privacy at all costs approach. (A detailed review of The Transparent Society can be found on Brad Delong's blog)

Obviously, I could be wrong, but I cannot recommend this book by itself --- reading it without reading The Transparent Society would be like reading Starship Troopers without also reading The Forever War. I read this book on my Kindle for free, so I didn't feel compelled to ask for my money back.
Post a Comment