Yallow Marcus and his friends are seventeen, live into a near future Earth, and do the things kids normally do at their age. The schools they attend are equipped with futuristic surveillance systems — based on gait pattern recognition and real-time tracking of RFID tags inserted in their books — and the lessons they follow make use of schoolbooks of the last generation. Theoretically, they’re always under the control of the school authorities, but the technology does not prevent them to carve out the necessary brackets of private leisure time and engage in more constructive pursuits. Through a deep understanding of the secrets of information technology they are masters of their time, with all due respect for the adults who grew up in a world with low digital penetration, and are just beyond the threshold of digital illiteracy.
To Cory Doctorow it only takes twenty pages to paint the scenario of a peaceful utopian youthful rebellion and shred the idyll into pieces. The life of Marcus, Darryl, Vanessa and Jolu — four regular kids like so many Americans — stops suddenly one morning when the horror erupts in their universe and precipitates them into the coils of a dystopian nightmare. The four are just “escaped” from school to devote their time to the nth stage of a town alternate reality game that is popular between gangs of teenagers in San Francisco, when terrorists blew up with a dirty-bomb the Bay Bridge, “true bridge workforce “of the city, as Doctorow writes.
As if the accident would evoke other misfortunes, the four are in the wrong place at the wrong time and a word too much lashed out against the authorities intervened to guard the area has the tragic effect of to send them to a prison full of abusive interrogations that border with psychological torture.
Once released, Marcus discovers that Darryl has not shared the fate of the group and has disappeared on American soil. He is believed dead by Marcus, and thus becomes the spring that triggers his rebellion. With the force of his knowledge in technology, and behind the nickname of M1k3y, Marcus Yallow organizes a clandestine network that makes use of modified consoles equipped with an hyper-secure operating system, not surprisingly called Paranoid Linux, to put up a resistance to the extreme control system put in place by the government. From Xbox to Xnet, from the games to the war: for Marcus begins this way a difficult ideological and moral battle, which is not limited to a simple personal vendetta, but aims at returning dignity to the American citizens that someone, hiding behind the threat of Al Qaeda , decided to vilify it for personal advantage. And if that someone happens to act under the banner of the infamous Department of Homeland Security, then the war will be hard, ruthless and an endless nightmare until the enemy will finally be defeated. (Incidentally, the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, established by the Bush administration after September 11, 2001 as part of the extraordinary measures taken to tackle the crisis and “ensure” national security, has shown that the reality matches fiction with a sad episode reported by the same Doctorow in his blog that saw the main science fiction writer and Canadian biologist Peter Watts mistreated by Michigan border guards.)
With this book, published by Tor Books in 2008, Cory Doctorow, the already activist of Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-editor of Boing Boing, the most popular blog in the world, has succeeded in the dual enterprise to renew the tradition of dystopian science fiction that has its stronghold in 1984 by George Orwell (honored explicitly in the title, “Little Brother”) and to produce a sort of a small manual of civil resistance for the new generations.
Little Brother is a work of denunciation, animated not by an abstract ideal, but by the belief that certain ideas – incontrovertible, universal, absolute – must necessarily find their application in our reality. To this end, it is functional for the author to operate a rediscovery of the spirit of democracy by digging into the roots of contemporary America, from the season of disputes and the movement for Civil Liberties that since the ’60s had the its hub in San Francisco. And it is no coincidence if the heart of the book is taken up by a discussion of the constitutional principles and in particular the importance of the First Amendment, with an emphasis on a passage from the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia ratified in 1776:
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 to 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.
The dilemma between personal freedom and collective security captures the essence of the novel. A false dilemma, though, as Marcus continues to believe despite the insistence of bad teachers, as it is not by denying one that we’ll be able to guarantee the other. Indeed, major constraints and restrictions are imposed on individual freedom, the greater the dangers that this entails for the nation. But the challenge is to prove the groundlessness of this premises against common sense that has prevailed in a public opinion directed by the government with the support of the media.
Doctorow plays respectfully with Orwell’s masterpiece, without the fear of overturning the predictions. The Little Brother is the seventeen year old Marcus Yallow, known to the people in the network as M1k3y, but already known as w1n5t0n before his previous electronic identity were burned. It is thanks to him that Big Brother is countered in a network of Little Brothers and Little Sisters like him and like Ange, perfect in the role of young pasionaria. The author symbolically talks through his protagonist, and critics the social fabric in the same USA. It is a view far from trivial: in an era marked by the dematerialization of the warfronts and inevitably conditioned by the party game, Doctorow has the courage to raise his finger and point it against those who think they are legitimated by circumstances to abuse the power that has been conferred to them. His message shares the spirit of Captain America by John Ney Rieber, a staunch defender of freedom as a fundamental value of American democracy.
It’s been several generations since Winston Smith of George Orwell, but Marcus / M1k3y would be a worthy heir, perhaps more reckless but surely even more awake and dangerous despite his brave ancestor. Unlike Winston, Marcus knows that knowledge is the real secret of power. Not privacy, but security, as is also stated in the two afterwords from Bruce Schneier (expert of computer security and encryption) and Andrew “Bunnie” Huang (the MIT researcher who first hacked the Xbox).
Little Brother teaches us that only bad security is based on secrecy and it is true a lesson. For this, M1k3y manages to keep in check the DHS and its officers, convinced they have the city and the network under control. The Department wants to silence the voices of dissent by deceiving citizens that security will only come through total control. M1k3y uses their weapons to force transparency on the same controllers, and sheds light on the misdeeds of the power, of their ideas, and through the support of investigative journalism.
In the novel, also the fourth power rediscovers its crucial role in contemporary society. Even in this, as in the resolution of the dilemma freedom / security, Doctorow gives evidence of a brave optimism, but it also prove to be convincing.
Massimo Marino is a scientist envisioning science fiction. He spent years at CERN and The Lawrence Berkeley Lab followed by lead positions with Apple, Inc. and the World Economic Forum. He is also co-founder of “Squares on Blue”, a Big Data Analytics service company.
Massimo currently lives in France and crosses the border with Switzerland multiple times daily, although he is no smuggler.
As a scientist writing science fiction, he went from smashing particles at accelerators at SLAC and CERN to smashing words on a computer screen.
He’s the author of multi-awarded Daimones Trilogy.
His novels have received the Seal of Excellency from both AwesomeIndies.net and IndiePENdents.org
• 2013 Hall of Fame – Best in Science Fiction, Quality Reads UK Book Club