Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Little Brother

by Cory Doctorow


In Overclocked Cory Doctorow took the themes of authors such as Orson Scott Card and Isaac Asimov and gave them his own twist. With Little Brother he takes on George Orwell's 1984, updating it for the 21st century.

Marcus Yallow, aka w1n5t0n, is a seventeen-year-old high school student in San Francisco. He's clued-in to technology to the extent that finds fooling with his school's pervasive surveillance systems to be child's play. So when he skips class with a few friends to play a game, he effectively falls off the school's radar.

The game involves hunting for clues in the city streets. Unfortunately it puts Marcus and his friends in the wrong place when San Francisco is hit by a massive terrorist attack. In the chaos that follows they are taken in by the Department of Homeland Security and held for questioning in a secret prison. Without a decent alibi, and without anything useful to confess, their incarceration goes on for days.

When Marcus is eventually released he finds a changed America. Paranoia has a grip on the country, and the DHS has used this to consolidate its grip. People are so outraged by the attack that they are willing to give the DHS whatever powers it asks for. But Marcus isn't ready to accept detention without charge or any further attempts to curtail his liberties. He vows to expose the rotten underbelly of the system, and to bring it down.

Little Brother is terrifying because Cory Doctorow isn't really going in for futurology in a big way. A lot of the tracking and data mining technologies he mentions are with us today. He also hits very close to home when it comes to the political changes that took place in the aftermath of the September the 11th attacks, and the controversy over Guantanamo Bay. Doctorow brings the civil rights movement of the 1960s into the mix, as well as echoes of the paranoia of Germany in the 1930s when people were encouraged to spy on their neighbours. It's a novel that's brimming with history, just as much as it's a stark warning about the future.

The main character is an IT prodigy for whom technology is the tool of a fiesty young subculture rather than something that's the preserve of the unpopular loner. The battle for freedom takes place both on the streets and in the classroom. It's no accident that Marcus is clever. His intelligence is more than a quirky character trait. Knowledge is power, and we see that by intervening in the classroom the government is attempting to take away yet one more freedom from people. The character of Marcus stands in opposition to the anti-intellectualism of the Bush regime.

Little Brother is very much a product of its time. Not merely in terms of its theme, but also in the way everything is described. Doctorow includes a lot of details that place it in 2008, and he makes a big deal of the technologies, websites and political institutions current in that year. However, whilst it's strongly dated in the sense that it relates very definitely to a certain period, it deals with subjects that have an enduring appeal. It's a hard-hitting cautionary tale about the way technology can be abused to erode privacy and freedom.

Book Details

Year: 2008

Categories: Books

  Science fiction
  Male Protagonist  

If you like this, try:

Apoidea cover    

Apoidea by Douglas Thompson
In a world without real bees, who will control their robot replacements?

Bloody War cover    

Bloody War by Terry Grimwood
London is transformed into a war zone in this chilling story of modern conflict.

Shades of Grey cover    

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
In the future your colour vision determines your life chances. But Eddie Russet may have seen too clearly for his own good.

5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Cory Doctorow