A few days ago I read Cory Doctorow's best-selling YA novel, Little Brother. I've been thinking about it ever since.
Little Brother takes place in a five-minutes-from-now future, and it opens with terrorists blowing up San Francisco's Bay Bridge. Four teenage friends, who have cut school to play an Alternate Reality Game, are in the area when the attack comes. Because it's so crowded in the underground BART stations, where people are supposed to go in case of attack, that people are getting trampled to death, the four stay above ground. They're picked up by a Department of Homeland Security van cruising the area for suspicious characters. Because the kids are all techno-geeks, they have on them cell phones, wi-fi finders, iPods -- the usual electronic equipment of the plugged-in and reasonably affluent. They are taken to a secret Gitmo-like prison and tortured for information they don't have. The novel then follows their various fates in and out of prison, and through the retaliation ("push-back") of protagonist and first-person narrator Marcus Yallow.
I couldn't put this book down. It's exciting, taut, full of plausible and interesting technology. Some reviewers have been bothered by the "info-dumps" about the tech and the algorithms that drive them, but I was not. Cory knows his stuff (he's one of the founders of the popular tech website Boing Boing) and he writes so well that his explanations are interesting. Furthermore, although his characters start out a little stereotyped, they deepen as the book progresses and end up quite moving.
Nonetheless, I'm troubled by this book. For an adventure novel -- even a techno-adventure -- you need a bad guy, and here it's the DHS. Marcus is fighting the erosion of civil rights in the United States. Just to make my position clear, let me state that I, too, think that our civil rights are being eroded. I, too, oppose the war in Iraq and the current administration, and I shouldn't have a problem with the politics of this book. But I do, because Cory takes them to extremes that, for me, undermine their plausibility.
Yes, we detain and torture suspected terrorists. But they are not seventeen-year-old, white, affluent kids who are carrying nothing more suspicious than electronic equipment to play an ARG. And if the DHS did do that and learned nothing from the kid, I can't believe they would then bug his bedroom, have him followed, etc. Nor that the American justice system, in the face of the legal aftermath of this brutal attack, would eventually charge him with the theft of a cell phone which he stole from another kid terrorist who has disappeared and is not even around to complain. Nor that the govenor of California has the power to "throw the DHS out of his state." Since when do governors have that sort of power over the federal government? And these are only a few examples.
In short, I didn't believe so much of the legal and political infrastructure of this book that it undermined the rest for me. However, when I discussed this with a friend, she said, "I believe it. You're politically naive." Perhaps I am. Certainly I believe that a president would make political capital from a terrorist attack, using it to help his re-electin efforts (ahem). But I don't believe that a president who knew -- in advance and for sure -- that such an attack was coming and would kill thousands of Americans, would do nothing to stop it because it would help his re-election efforts. For one thing, that sort of information always comes out, sooner or later. From whistle blowers, from the press, on the Internet.
This is not a politically oriented blog. But there's a question here about fiction, as well: How villainous can you paint current villains (if they are indeed that) before you erode credibility? For me, and despite this book's many virtues, Cory went too far.