Monday, June 16, 2008

Go. Read Little Brother Now. If You're Curious As To Why, Read This Post First

I just finished Cory Doctorow's YA novel Little Brother. I already knew by page 91 that this book was Important--the rest was just gravy. The only negative thing I have to say about it is that there's a wee bit of theme-bludgeoning, but it's not the horrid, grafted-on, authorial voice intrusions that Battlestar Galactica often perpetrates. Instead it's fully organic to the plot and characters--it makes sense for Marcus to be spouting off about these ideas and to espouse them in the first place (with the possible exception of the RIAA swipe, but I'll spot Doctorow that in a heartbeat).

As for the book's positives...where to start? I can't fully appreciate a lot of them as they are computer geek, hacker-oriented. (My geek badge is of the scientific branch, specifically the biochemical division. The codes I'm interested in hacking are pertain to the central dogma: DNA, RNA, and protein.) But there's a ton on living in a fear-focused society, dealing with homeland security's antiterroism measures, and moving on after a terrorist attack that resonated so well, I finally hacked another level of my brain and realized my own post 9/11 stupidities.

There's a subtheme winding its way through this novel that is sufficient in and of itself to make this book required reading for every single American who thought even for a second that privacy wasn't as important as the post 9/11 security measures. I was one such person. Hell, I even defended the measures at a grad student party in the months following the attack. The only extenuating circumstance I can call to my defense is that there were specific people there to whom I wanted to rub in their faces that I had nothing to hide--not because they did have something to hide, but because they thought I did. However, most of my outgassing at that party was fueled fully by fear and a sense of the familiar from my life as a military dependent in Germany at the downfall of the Iron Curtain. The latter is fodder for an entirely different blog post and completely unrelated to Little Brother. The former, however, was a role played by Drew, the main character's father.

He swallowed every annoying, inconvenient, and invasive DHS measure as a patriotic duty to be endured in order to Find the Bad Guys. He swallowed it because he had lived in fear for several days that the terrorist attack in the book had killed his son. Most of America reacted in the same way in the days and weeks and months and even years after 9/11. We were all terrified because the attacks involved two things the majority of us know and see on a regular basis: planes and prominent/important buildings. This wasn't a bombing or biological warfare or some other scary yet distanced from our daily lives attack on our country. This was a frightening twist on elements as common to the majority of Americans as televisions and phones. There was no easy way for our brains to process the attacks as something separate. No quick-fix of "boy, that couldn't happen every day" so we could digest what had happened and figure out a rational method of dealing with it. No, it warped distressingly familiar fixtures and triggered that intense fight-or-flight, a constant pain of "please, make it stop, make us safe." So we swallowed every single thing the government threw at us to prevent it from happening again. We hand-delivered our freedoms and privacy in exchange for the laudunum of assurances that it would make us safer.

At that grad student party, I clashed with two fairly conservative Republicans about this issue, advocating the security measures, brushing aside their concerns that the government wouldn't be so willing to return the rights and privileges we were ceding them. I probably offered just about every variety of argument the pro-DHS and DHS folks themselves used in Little Brother to justify making San Francisco a police state. I doubt I'm the only one, and I doubt I'm the only one who would see the parallels and find them chilling and sobering. I think I shook off the last of my 9/11 fear while reading this book.

Indeed, I finally realized that the overwhelming bit of my 9/11 fear was brought on by accepting the blissful state of an arrogant America, secure in freedoms and peace from domestic harm, surrounded by the false comfort that we export such things, so we are untouchable. We police the world, stop the bad things from happening to others. It is very alluring, the concept that we're so cool, nothing can hurt us, nothing can bring us down. 9/11 showed us that it's an allusion, and most of us would rather pull the wool back over our eyes as fast as possible. Who wants to live with the knowledge that we're all vulnerable to anything? There are no free passes when it comes to living in this world. And, what's even worse, the predators aren't going to helpfully expose themselves by twirling a mustache and going, "Mwa-ha-ha!" Even more distressing, most predators approach the hunt as if they are prey trying to protect their own damn selves. Evil is as seductive a lie as invincibility.

Doctorow doesn't try to completely idolize main character, though. Marcus has to face up to the unintended consequences in his fight to bring down DHS, to the point where the book even ends with Marcus actually accepting the fact that what he did was terrorism. This isn't explored as fully as it could be as DHS is portrayed in very negative terms and not given any sympathetic moments to the point where its shown to be an evil machine (see the last comment in the graf above as to why I think this is a problem). But it's hinted at often enough that I came away from the book understanding the Doctorow doesn't seem to be advocating anarchy and electronic terrorism as means to maintaining privacy and freedoms. Rather, the theme seems to be more that an open discourse, a friendly environment for debate and dissent must be maintained. I can get behind that.

It's telling that Marcus quotes a particular passage from the Declaration of Independence on several occasions. (It's also ironic, given that Doctorow, I believe, is Canadian.)

Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Government should fear its people, not the other way around. That seems to be the central tenet of this book. Not a bad concept for the youth of America to be exposed to right about now.

Go. Read Little Brother now. Pass it on.

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