My younger brother and I were brought up as Seventh Day Adventists, a fundamentalist sect founded in the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century. I left that church relatively early, but my brother remains very involved. He’s an accountant and, while he doesn’t adhere entirely to Adventist dogma and will discuss most issues with an open mind, he usually falls on the conservative side. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect he votes largely Republican.
This summer, I went to Minnesota to see my brother’s two sons, 12 and 14, get baptized. On Saturday after church, my family joined a group of locals at the side of a small river for the ceremony, which my nephews seemed to take quite seriously. We sang some hymns and prayed and the pastor said a few words welcoming the boys into the church community.
My family used the occasion as an excuse to have a family reunion of sorts. Other than the baptism, we spent the entire weekend laying about, making and eating food, playing games, and generally enjoying each other’s company.
In the midst of all this my little brother gave me Little Brother (Cory Doctorow, 2008), saying something mellow and innocuous like, “I think you might like this.” I not sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t what I got.
Little Brother is about a young man in high school in San Francisco in the present/near future. He and three friends are techie geeks and participate in complex games that integrate fantasy, technology, and the regular mundane world in ways that promote superb problem solving skills and strong group loyalty, as well as strange public behavior. Adept at avoiding the high-tech tracking and observation that infest their high schools and, to some degree, their city, these youths are bright, motivated, and highly skilled. When, early in the story, their lives are severely disrupted by a terrorist attack, their city and country are propelled into even more paranoia than that with which our society currently suffers. The Department of Homeland Security descends on the Bay Area and the rest of the story is about what happens to the teens and how they respond.
Doctorow sees one of his primary messages to be about privacy, especially digital and internet privacy. There’s an after word in which he talks about online security, encryption, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and more. Identify theft, data mining by the government and/or corporate entities, digital spying, and other forms of privacy invasion are serious issues. And for me they aren’t the real issues framing this story.
For me Little Brother is about “Big Brother” (from Orwell’s classic, 1984). It’s about government authority and liberty and fear and xenophobia and the ways that our country’s conservative leaders manipulate our society to fit their authoritarian worldview, lining their own and their friends’ pockets along the way. Doctorow’s ideas are a pretty natural extension of the direction George W. Bush was taking our country: unending foreign wars, spying on citizens, racial profiling, immigration injustice, holding people indefinitely without charge, torture, and privatization of it all. The big losers were citizens, especially low-income populations and people of color; the winners were corporations and those that controlled them.
I was confused for a while about why my brother suggested I read this story, because its message seemed to run counter to his politics. Then I remembered the paranoia about the end of time in my Adventist upbringing. That religion’s vision of the Earth’s last days includes harsh persecution for anyone who doesn’t go to church on Sunday; Seventh Day Adventists will be outlawed and, unable to work or even buy food, forced into the hills to survive. Perhaps my brother saw in the novel an explanation of how our society might descend into religious persecution and all the worst fears of our childhood. Of course, this explanation is needed only if we think there’s no religious or other persecution in this country already. Sadly, our nation, supposedly founded partially to protect religious and other cultural rights, has a long history of genocide, racial injustice, social and economic inequality, and religious discrimination. Current practice is little better—it’s dangerous to be Muslim in the U.S. today, just to name one target of oppression.
Little Brother brings up all this for me. Though written for a young adult audience, the story rarely, if ever, wallows in the teenage angst that often makes the genre unbearable. It’s a page-turner, yet the book’s potential to provoke a critical look at our democracy gives it a weight not found in many a more “serious” work. Thanks, little brother.