Cryptorebel without a cause
3 July 2009
When Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother came out last year, various geeky and liberal bloggers I respect lauded it as A Very Important Book That Today’s Young People Ought To Read. I finally read it and my general reaction was: this is A Very Important Book? WTF?
Obligatory non-spoilery plot summary: Marcus a.k.a. “w1n5t0n” is a high-school student with a gift for hacking, in both the “doing stuff with computers” sense and the “evading security systems” sense. In the wake of a terrorist attack on San Francisco, he is detained without warrant, interrogated about his nonexistent terrorist connections, and finally released with an “we’ve got our eye on you, boy” warning. He vows REVENGE. Hijinks ensue.
I should be a sucker for a novel with this kind of setup, so why did it so thoroughly turn me off? Let me count the ways:
- Marcus is a geek wish-fulfillment fantasy. He sneaks through his school’s high-tech security screens! He passes out DVDs containing a hardened Linux distribution to his friends and classmates, who accept them eagerly! Hundreds of people who only know him over a carefully anonymized network acclaim him as his leader, even as he humbly denies being in control of anything! He shows a teacher who’s a true patriot by quoting the Declaration of Independence! As his first part-time job, while still a high-school student, he implements a cryptographic protocol! Girls want to have sex with him! I realize that the main character of a thriller novel is usually larger than life, but this goes far for my taste; Marcus is so perfect that there’s no room in the novel for him to demonstrate personal growth. And why should he? He was right about everything on the first page and equally right on the last.
- The book is stuffed with infodumps about computer technology, the glorious Sixties, and other things that the author clearly thinks You Should Know, but which do nothing to advance the plot or reveal the character. It’s almost as bad as the sex scenes in a Gor novel. Here, I’ll prove it: I randomly open the book to pages 258–259. On page 267, the third paragraph begins “It’s unbelievable today, but there was a time when the government classed crypto as a munition…” and goes on for a whole page.
- Given the undercurrent of the author hectoring the next generation about what they should care about, the book’s flirtation with youth-worship—at one point Marcus’s movement adopts the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over 25”—is just… odd. And as regime-threatening movements go, Marcus’s network is curiously homogenous. They’re young. They’re geeky enough to ruin a perfectly good video-game console to run Linux on it. They seem to have the same taste in music and recreation (two critical points in the plot involve a rock concert and a LARP, respectively). Most of the main characters are white or East Asian; the role of racism in the government’s suppression of civil liberties is barely mentioned.
- Most people willing to risk arrest and long-term detention for exercising their civil rights are not just trying to exercise their civil rights, but trying to use those civil rights to accomplish something. Paul Robert Cohen appealed to the Supreme Court for the right to display “Fuck the Draft” on his jacket; while the legal system only cared about the first word, Cohen cared about the entire sentence. By contrast, in Little Brother, the movement’s enthusiasm for civil liberties is completely disconnected from any larger political program. Marcus and his friends want to “take it [the country] back”, but for what do they want to do with the country once they have it? End the war in Iraq? Liberalize the immigration laws? Repeal the provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that have discouraged high-tech startups from floating initial public offerings? I have no idea.
The Israeli author Amos Oz once said that when he has a question to which he knows the answer, he writes an essay; when he has a question to which he doesn’t know the answer, he writes a novel. I’ve enjoyed Doctorow’s previous work—both fiction and non—but Little Brother is a novel that should have been an essay.
1 Had I been teaching that class, I would have pointed out that John Adams had signed the Declaration of Independence as a delegate from Massachusetts and then, twenty-two years later, signed the Alien and Sedition Acts.
2 Losing his virginity doesn’t count.
3 OK, a Gor novel would have the sex scene within five pages of any random selection, not ten, but then again, the Gor novels are printed in smaller type.
4 Cf. Stanley Fish’s remark, in There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing, Too, that the only speech that can be completely free is speech that nobody cares about listening to.