Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow (2008).
Little Brother tells the story of Marcus Yallow, white teen engineering geek and hacker living in San Francisco, and how his life is changed forever after he is held and interrogated illegally by the Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
Little Brother is easy to dismiss as an YA light adventure that, to add insult to injury, tries to actually teach you about cryptography and cybersecurity. I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Rabkin that the book manages to transmit an insane amount of information and does it, at least for my taste, in a very entertaining way. I’ve actually recommended it to several of my friends who are interested in cryptography.
I was very enthusiastic about the book from the beginning, partly because the other book about cryptography that I have read was quite disappointing, but don’t get me wrong, there’s some good writing going on here. Some people have noted that Marcus speaks not like a teenager from 2008 but like what a thirty-something thought teenagers spoke back in 2008. I have no fucking idea how anyone spoke English in 2008 so it really flew over my head.
The main character is quite likable, the plot is quite straightforward and easy to understand. It’s an easy ride. Like Frank Sinatra or Steve Vai, there’s genius in making something difficult look like a piece of cake, and I think Doctorow achieves that. There are some clear YA elements, such as the teenage protagonist that saves the world (that this is the case is already arguable but whatever) and a whole bunch of idealism and a hunger to make a better world of this one we live in.
And you know what, there are some points in your life, no matter how old you are, when you need to feel like you’re seventeen again and our battle can be won, or you are completely lost. “My name is Trudy Doo and you’re an idiot if you trust me. I’m thirty-two and it’s too late for me”, Trudy rallies an illegal concert of thousands. “You’re young enough and stupid enough not to know that you can’t possibly win, so you’re the only ones who can lead us to victory!” Moments later the crowd is dispersed with pepper gas. Thank goodness the events in the book are entirely fictional.
I don’t care if an editor slapped YA on this to sell more copies or to appeal to someone’s sense of what is appropriate for an adult and what isn’t, but I needed to be told that. That it’s still worth fighting in a world that’s pretty fucked up for an everyperson like you or me. That it’s okay if I’m twenty-seven and I still think that we can win.
Little Brother is available for download under a Creative Commons license here.