Sunday, May 25, 2008

Little Brother

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.


King Rat said...

I am about halfway through the book right now, and like you I find it hard to put down (obviously I am taking a break here at least). I am loving the book.

I have a quibble or two with the book, but not what you took issue with. I can't see DHS and our government being so abruptly controlling of our own population as they are in the book. But they have behaved exactly that way in Iraq and Afghanistan. So I am reading it like that, with the question in mind "How would you feel if we were doing to us what we are doing to 'them'?"

In any case, I don't think it's all that implausible to establish that kind of control here. Not likely. But the problem is one of abruptness rather than extent. Citizens have been quite acquiescent to the gradual erosion of civil liberties. If you did over the course of two decades what Doctorow has them doing in two weeks, it's quite plausible. Which brings the whole thing down to a minor quibble for me.

I am quite glad that Little Brother is attracting the attention it is. I just hope it breaks out of the geek set.

Claudius said...

Interesting point. I definitely loved the book. I would have said that this strikes me as something of an outlier, but not so much that it broke me out of the suspension of disbelief. (Well, maybe the bit in the conference room.) I.e., my measured assessment of what would happen if the feds went gonzo would be somewhat less extreme, but I'd believe it when faced with evidence. Like the Watergate burglary -- it's the difference between Would the sitting administration order a political opponent's papers robbed?, and Did they? And in this case, since an author can present their scenario as plain fact, it benefits from the Show Me factor. So it worked for me, but YMMV.

Am giving a copy to my just-turning-13-gamer nephew. Will be interested in what he thinks.

Nancy Kress said...

That's a very good point, king rat. Perhaps what I should have said was not, "Cory went too far" but rather "Cory went too fast."

The Pondering Tree's Alpha Site said...

Ah, but the sort of thing Cory is writing about is "The Future," Nancy.

Well, not future in reality but the future insofar as what many SF writers prefer to write about. Of course the United States is the Bad Guy and Cory makes hay like so many of his peers by writing a polemic where the US Government picks on teenagers.

I'm not surprised. It is part of what annoys me about the generation of writers that is in my age group.

You want a bad guy in science fiction? The only acceptable one anymore, without getting cracked in the back of the head with an accusation of an ism, an ist or a phobia is to use some arm of the United States.

King Rat, I'll tell you why DHS or any other branch couldn't behave like this for long. We have a high proportion of gun ownership in the US. Folks, sooner or later would resort to violence of their own sort. Additionally, not having read the novel, I find it hard to believe that if DHS started torturing teenagers (some of them ought to be tortured for reasons not related to National Security in any case) that the citizenry wouldn't flood the streets in protest.

Especially San Fran? There would be protests, violent ones. Regardless of a terrorist attack.

I won't bother with the novel. I get awfully tired of polemics.

S. F. Murphy

Mike Flynn said...

Heinlein once warned that we must never believe our own propaganda, as that was more foolish than believing the other's. In a similar vein, Thucydides observed that "men accept without question that which they find congenial, but will bring all the forces of reason to argue against what they find uncongenial."

So there is a tendency, once we have taken a dislike to someone or thing, to believe anything bad about them. Going over-the-top is easy. We're also accustomed to stereotyping, and paint the Other Side with a broad brush: no individuals, only types who do not act for any justifiable reason. So a cartoonish sense of unreality can creep into the fiction.

cd said...

A good example here is how environmentalists have been treated by the Bureau. When Judy Bari was bombed, the FBI spent a year investigating her -- on the outrageous grounds that being an environmentalist she must have put a motion-triggered bomb under her own car seat. The FBI used their bogus investigation as an opportunity to gather information on environmentalists. The FBI's behavior was so egregious that -- very, very belatedly -- Bari won a civil rights case against the Bureau and won $4.4 m when the jury agreed the goal of the FBI was to infringe on her first amendment rights.

Judi Bari was white, of middle class background. She was labeled a radical and promptly treated outrageously, and this long before 9/11. After a terrorist attack, it's hard to believe it wouldn't be worse.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

I'm confused. Exactly =which= rights we formerly enjoyed no longer exist?

cofax said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who tripped over the absolute implausibility of the Governor of California throwing a federal agency out of the state. If the point of the novel is to focus on the importance of the constitutional rights we have and to defend them, it should also recognize that a state governor cannot simply ignore the Supremacy Clause because he wants to.

I also found it thematically inconsistent that Marcus ends up "winning" inasmuch as he does, by simply telling the truth to trustworthy adults. Who then go on to fix the situation for him. This rather contradicts most of his and his friends' agency, and results in undercutting the point that Doctorow is trying to make.

I enjoyed the book a great deal, but I don't believe that it's going to convince anyone who doesn't already share Doctorow's political beliefs.

Colin said...

Nancy, long time reader, first time commenter.

As a libertarian - please notice the small "L" - this is a fear we constantly have. I read this right before you posted your comment. It details the new powers that the president is claiming in his role as "commander-in-chief", a role he had been emphasizing over the other "hats" a president wears during their tenure.

To one of your specific points, when would a governor have the power to evict the DHS from a state. Right now, the governor would have none. This is due to the passage of the 17th Amendment. That amendment allows for the direct election of senators by the people of each state. Since its passage, states have not had an effective check on the powers of the Federal government. As such, Congress may pass whatever laws they want - funded or unfunded - and the states must implement them without any recourse.

A good example of this was the national push to make the minimum drinking age 21. Whether you agree with it or not, what happened was the federal government holding national highway funds over the state's heads if they did not make such a change to their state laws.

Now, had the Senate been appointed by the states as apposed to popularly elected, the states could have prevented that - again, rightly or wrongly - before it got that far.

A governor could, conceivably kick a federal agency out of the state with the threat of the state's national guard - because it is a state militia and not technically a member of the federal armed forces - but this would bring the same constitutional issues as states that want to secede. However, this is doubtful due to recent passages of laws making the national guard answerable to the president but... depending upon the loyalty of the soldiers, could still happen if the president's authority under law was disregarded.

Lastly, as to the point of white kids being held, remember that John Walker Lindh may or may not have been involved in terrorist activities but that did not stop them from prosecuting him and putting him in prison for a very long time. I say may or may not because he chose a plea over going to trial and testing the government's proof.

Now, I haven't read the book - though I intend to - but nothing you have described seems implausible if the political circumstances were correct. We are, at the end of the day - and whether the president wishes to accept it or not - a republic. And as the old saying goes, "This country was built on three boxes: The soap box, the ballot box, and the ammo box. Use in that order."

Just some thoughts...

Jason said...

It's hard to say where things would take us. I can't believe several of the things that have happened. To me, the Patriot Act seems to be clearly unconstitutional and would never fly, yet there it is. How much farther would another attack take us? I hope not as far as "Little Brother" but I'm just not sure anymore.

To take another tact. Maybe disbelief is ok. There's some books by Heinlein, "Sixth Column" comes to mind for some reason, that seemed to me to be completely unbelievable. But the story was still interesting. "Little Brother" is gripping, imo, because it hits close to home, and it exposes points of view that are virtually non-existant in the media.

Here's something I read earlier today:
Looks like these things are already being used against people. How long is it before our government makes this sort of research and monitoring the normal policy for all citizens?

Nick A said...

"Little Brother" is on my TBR list. A more hollywood version of this theme is the 'traveler' series by John Twelve Hawks (an entertaining read).

Luke said...

Little Brother loves you, Nancy.

James A. Ritchie said...

Quite possibly the worst book I've ever finished. Certainly the most unrealistic book. Downright silly. It was, at best, no more than a polemic, and at worst no less than the same sort of silly manifesto the unabomber wrote.

It might have been salvaged to some degree, but the cop out, pun intended, ending made me laugh. . .at the same time it made me vow to never again read a book by Doctorow.

This "novel," and I use the term loosely, is everything that's wrong with American SF.

And, jeeze, if you want to make DHS the bad guys, fine, do so. But Doctorow wasn't writing about anyone in DHS, he was writing about ficticious, unrealistic, cartoon boobs that live only in his own warped imagination.

I see why Doctorow says he had such an easy time writing this book. Just God-awful work.

The Pondering Tree's Alpha Site said...

Damn, James. Is it that bad?

Fortunately for me, I normally do not bother with Doctorow anyway. Sounds like I'm not missing a thing.

S. F. Murphy

cd said...

OK, well, I finally got a copy and read it, and loved it. I'm betting it gets the Nebula. I'll be voting to get it on the ballot, anyway.

Re: the DHS can't be kicked out of California. Well, I ask, why is Gitmo on the island of Cuba? I believe the reason is that if it were in a blue State it would have been shut down long ago. In a red state, maybe, maybe not -- but it surely would be the site of endless legal struggle and debate. I take that as evidence that what Doctorow portrays is feared by the relevant planners. The Governor of course could not "kick out" DHS, but s/he could symbolically "kick them out": demand they leave, order state and local organizations not to cooperate, and go so far as to cut off their power or other such things. The ensuing legal fight would force exposure. And that is specifically and explicitly being avoided by current policy. Having Gitmo in Cuba is really the softer side of disappearing people to Syria and other places: it is done to escape domestic civil power.

I saw nothing in the treatment of Marcus that is not typical of the treatment received by many activists, with the exception of the threat of deportation to Syria and the waterboarding. American law is very, very hard on people that get labeled radicals, especially, most especially, "left" radicals -- the DHS would be even harsher.

I will make a point of recommending the book widely and often.

cd said...

PS: I note with pleasure that _Little Brother_ is on the NYT's Children's books bestseller list for the second week. If this is "what's wrong with SF," then we can use a hell of a lot more of it.

Mike Flynn said...

I suspect it is on Cuba because a) there was already a secure military facility there and b) if anyone did escape they would not be inside the United States. Now, there were POW camps for Germans built inside the US, so there is precedent. But I don't know if they were used for any SS or other true believer types.

cd said...

PPS: Oh, Nancy, I meant to ask. RE: "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." I didn't see any suggestion in the book that the govt knew about the attack on the bridge beforehand. Did I miss something? Or were you referring to some of the 9/11 conspiracy-theorists there?