I was at a bar with some booksellers, engaging in drunken bookseller gossip over expensive whiskies and cheap beer, and one of them said I had to read Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. "It's the most important book to come out this year," he said. I was skeptical. Booksellers hyperbolize a lot—plus, Little Brother is Doctorow's first book of young-adult fiction. "I don't read young-adult fiction," I said. He called me a snob and a jackass. Things devolved into a fight.
The trajectory of my young reading life completely overshot young-adult novels. I don't have much use for them. America feels otherwise. The young-adult market is expanding exponentially, and those numbers don't just include teenagers; a growing segment of the adult reading population now reads young-adult novels.
I finally agreed to read the book because Doctorow is always surprising. He has written great science-fiction novels (Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) and amazing experimental failures (Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, whose main character is the spawn of a washing machine and a mountain). Doctorow is perhaps most famous for his aversion to copyright; almost all of his work is available for free in e-book form under Creative Commons: Basically, you can legally do anything you want with them—download, reedit, rewrite—as long as you don't profit. Little Brother is an extension of that computer-friendly, fuck-the-man attitude.
Little Brother is the story of Marcus, a 17-year-old hacker who gets secretly arrested by Homeland Security. In true young-adult-novel fashion, Marcus and his friends fight back against the theft of their freedoms.
Doctorow's prose is light and explanatory, and it's the explanations that really make the book important: Hidden inside Little Brother is a manual for civil disobedience. It has useful advice for what to do when detained by authorities; information about methods the government employs to track its own citizens; and actual, working tips on how to modify technology to maintain your anonymity. With a copy of the book and Google, it's possible for an inspired reader to scan his surroundings for miniature cameras, free his computer from spyware, and set up anonymous internet identities.
It's amazing that, in wave after wave of political books whining about the loss of civil liberties, none provide useful information on fighting back. Little Brother should be given to teenagers (and quite a few adults) everywhere.
Cory Doctorow reads Sat May 17, Elliott Bay Book Company, 7:30 pm; and Tues May 20, Ravenna Third Place Books, 7 pm. Both readings are free.