This month’s Feature Article will examine Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. Doctorow was recommended to me when I asked a colleague to list a few current authors they had read recently, although the title I chose was random as there was no mention of specific books in the author list provided.
It will become obvious with my commentary that I do not fit the audience profile Doctorow intended, being well north of that “over twenty-five” crowd of evil and complacent grownups he lumps together as mindless automatons in the story – forget the fact that it is the lemming grownups that go to work everyday so the teens in the story can wear their designer jeans and shades, surf the net on their PCs and cell phones, buy their endless burritos and Turkish coffees, etc. Of course, these inconveniences of reality were hardly the point as Little Brother is really a work of political propaganda packaged as a science fiction novel. That is was directed at impressionable young adults might cause many who disagree with Doctorow’s politics to harshly criticize the work. I, on the other hand, actually have quite a bit of faith in the under twenty-five generation and their ability to discern the difference between an honest debate over the balance of freedom and security in a post 9/11 world and the one-sided bias presented in Little Brother.
Unlike other critics of Little Brother, I will give Doctorow some credit and accept his work as fair warning on the dangers of a degenerate government when we the people let our vigilance down; however, I am not so sure he would give the same consideration to the other side since there is no grey area or balance of opinion in Little Brother. It is simply a black and white portrayal of an evil, torturing United States government stripping freedoms from its citizens in the wake of a large terrorist attack. The antagonists in DHS are not even given names, and they remain “severe haircut lady” and “booger-nose” throughout the story.
I would pose the following question to Doctorow: Are the current Tea Party protesters with their “Don’t Tread on Me” signs as important and relevant to the discussion regarding the bounds of a government “by and for the people” as the anti-war demonstrations and protests over the Patriot Act and Gitmo were? Is this an accurate comparison? Perhaps not, but government intrusion can take many forms, and since Little Brother only presented the issue from a politically charged point of view, it’s tough to accept the work as anything but political propaganda, the very antithesis of the point Doctorow is trying to make, I might add. Replacing the dogma of the right with the dogma of the left doesn’t enlighten anyone.
After finishing the book, I was left wondering if there really was a point in writing it. Was it simply an echo-chamber of opinion that was preaching to a choir of likeminded people? Opponents of Doctorow’s point of view would rarely even finish the story, and those who may have been persuadable should find the work too heavy-handed and one-sided to accept it as an honest broker of ideas. Perhaps then, Little Brother has even failed as propaganda, and it is nothing more than a pep talk to those already converted to Doctorow’s world view.
One more comment on the politics of the work before I talk about the story itself. I would like to add that conspiratorial manifestations on the level portrayed in Little Brother fail because of two important factors that never seem to get considered when such things are imagined. First, as the number of people required to be “in on the conspiracy” grows, the likelihood that it remains a secret is greatly diminished – all it takes is a single nameless DHS official in the story to cut that book deal, and the whole thing comes crashing down. Secondly, and more importantly, conspiracies on the scale of Little Brother would require a high degree of government competence. I’ll leave it to my readers to decide if our federal government is competent enough to pull off the escapades in Little Brother – I’m afraid that being evil is not a substitute for competence.
So politics and propaganda aside, did I enjoy Little Brother? Surprisingly, I did. I didn’t have any issues with the quality of Doctorow’s prose as I have seen argued in other critiques, and I simply let the story unfold, adequately suspending my disbelief when required and moving on – working in IT for most of my adult career, I always find myself laughing at scenes of overly caffeinated teens performing Herculean programming tasks overnight. But hey, wouldn’t it be great if even the geniuses among us could pull that off? Sadly, I think IT management often thinks we can program like that, but I digress. I also had no issues with the amount of techno-babble, which may be too much for some readers, and I don’t think it affected the pace of the book. Then again, my bias from working in this field certainly played a role in my acceptance of this.
So after finishing Little Brother, I was left wondering about other works by Doctorow, and I realized I may not have made the best choice by allowing Little Brother to be the first item I read from Doctorow’s catalog. It is a political work that might have worked as a good warning had it not been so one-sided; and as someone who views the issues presented as grey rather than black and white, I could not help but use the “propaganda” label for Little Brother, as much as I would have liked not to throw out that charged word. So depending upon your tolerance for a political point of view you may not espouse, Little Brother may be an infuriating read; on the other hand, if you already agree with Doctorow’s world view, this will simply be an echo-chamber, reinforcing your opinions. Unfortunately, at this point, the ability for rational discussion probably ends.