Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2008, ISBN 978-0-7653-1985-2
Marcus, aka “w1n5t0n”, is only seventeen-years-old but when he is picked up after a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, he’s treated like public enemy number one. He is interrogated for days simply because he and his friends were in the wrong place at the wrong time. When he is finally released, he makes it his mission to undermine the Department of Homeland Security’s surveillance of the city through an elaborate network of underground hackers. Pretty soon, his Xnet users and followers regard him as the leader in the resistance to the police state California has become. This brings with it fame, notoriety and attention – something Marcus doesn’t need if he’s going to find his friend who was arrested with him and is still missing. To outsmart the government agents that are now swarming his city, he’s going to need a strong network and an even stronger network of friends.
Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is an interesting update of Orwell’s dystopian classic. As the government becomes increasingly militant and oppressive in combating terror, smart, tech geeks like Marcus become more inventive in order to secure their individual liberties and avoid being arrested. Doctorow shows how quickly civil rights disappear after a massive terrorist attack. Even Marcus’s father is happy to give up his freedoms to feel safe in his city. The novel doesn’t feel like its set in the distant future like Orwell’s 1984, but in the present where an individual’s every move can be tracked. If you weren’t paranoid before reading Little Brother, you may be after you see all the different ways your country can spy on you.
Unlike 1984, however, individuals still retain some power over the government. Doctorow is clearly knowledgeable about technology and the novel imbued with authentic details about hacker culture. He also knows the Bay Area well and this reader enjoyed being taken on a tour of familiar places in his hometown. As paranoid as Doctorow made me feel about encroaching government surveillance, he also gave me reason to hope that our freedoms will be defended by rebels with a cause like Marcus.
Who would have thought a teenager with an Xbox could go up against the goliath of the U.S. government? After seventeen-year-old Marcus, aka w1n5t0n, is arrested and subsequently monitored by Department of Homeland Security, he must use his network and network of friends to keep the traditionally hippy home of San Francisco from turning into a police state.
Information about the author
From the author’s Wikipedia page we learn that “Canadian-born Cory Doctorow has held policy positions with Creative Commons and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and been a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Southern California. He is a co-editor of the popular weblog BoingBoing (boingboing.net), which receives over three million visitors a month. His science fiction has won numerous awards, and his YA novel Little Brother spent seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Young Adult Fiction
English, Civics, Computer Science
How much freedom should we restrict to ensure our safety?
Does technology make us safer or more vulnerable?
Reading Level / Interest Age
Grade 9 and up
There are some scenes depicting alcohol and sex with minors. These are not gratuitous and the author handles them responsibly. The larger message of the book is one of standing up for what you believe in, even if the odds are against you.
Why did I include this title?
I have taught George Orwell’s 1984 for years and love its dystopian vision of our future. There are so many parallels students make between Orwell’s depiction of a “Big Brother” state and our own that I was curious how Doctorow would update the classic. This would be a great novel to teach in tandem with 1984 to show how the individual isn’t entirely at the mercy of the collective.