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Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother (edition 2008)

by Cory Doctorow

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4,0183271,272 (4.06)2 / 253
You can’t trust Cory Doctorow. He’s 40. What could he know? You just can’t trust him. Of course, you can’t trust me either. I’m over 25. I’m able to run for certain public offices. What could I know?

Nevertheless, whether you can trust Doctorow or me, believe me when I say that his book Little Brother is fantastic. It tells the story of a kid, Marcus, in a not-too-distant post-9-11 future who innovates to overcome the artificial limitations imposed on him by his school and his society. Only, after a bridge blows up, he and his friends are considered “persons of interest” by the DHS.

After this event, like any other event where somebody did something to us we didn’t expect, the people gladly let the government take away their civil liberties until all of the city is one big Airstrip One.

Our protagonist doesn’t like being treated like a criminal without having performed any crimes, so he intelligently (for the most part) fights back using the set of power tools granted to us by the founding fathers in the Bill of Rights.

At times, the story is funny and light hearted. Others, it’s angering and maddening. Still others, it’s almost tear-jerking. I find it a real shame that more books aimed at younger audiences like this don’t exist. I’d love for the youth of our country to be entertained while learning about their so-called unalienable rights, especially since they’re probably only getting one side from their public schools.

If you’re a high school-aged person or are a teacher or parent of such, pick up this book (it’s freely available in e-book format) and give a copy to every teen you know. While you might not agree with every topic covered in this book, it is an excellent primer on basic human freedoms, especially when they’re at odds with an oppressive government, making us take our shoes off at airports and get molested by federal agents “for our safety.”

Today’s children are tomorrows leaders, so let’s give them the whole story before we hand the wheel over to them. That is, if they can still trust us. ( )
  aethercowboy | Jun 21, 2012 |
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Whether intentionally or not (and I suspect that it was intentional), the title of Doctorow’s novel calls to mind the unseen but omnipresent governmental hawkeye of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984. This is, of course, quite a bold allusion for an author to make, and while Little Brother tells the tale of a hacker teenager from San Francisco named Marcus and his unwarranted imprisonment and subsequent torture at the hands of a government agency that oversteps its power, the book falls short of approaching the pervasive sense of paranoia and social horror that Orwell’s novel evokes to this day.

As a Young Adult novel, Little Brother fits the niche—Marcus is an adolescent protagonist facing many of the challenges of urban teenagers. He deals with authoritative school administrators, a school bully, problematic friends, the uncertainty of teenage romance, and the numerous other rites of passage encountered in many YA novels. What makes this story unique is Marcus’ techno-battle with the Department of Homeland Security, which despotically treats Marcus—and many other innocent citizens, including his friends—as a suspected terrorist after an attack on the Oakland Bay Bridge.

I suspect, however, that many young adults will grow tired of the sometimes lengthy and detailed explanations of Internet technology and security systems that are peppered throughout the narrative. These disquisitions on the nuts and bolts of technology are sometimes clunky, despite Doctorow’s best efforts, and they sometimes bring the narrative action to a standstill. For this reason, the novel may appeal only to the small subculture of adolescent techies who are excited by hacking (which Doctorow goes to great lengths to advocate as a way to ensure freedom and safety). ( )
  jimrgill | Sep 24, 2015 |
@little_brother +library ( )
  Lorem | Sep 24, 2015 |
A decent read, that was sort of like reading a Lonely Planet guide to teenage hacker life in San Francisco with 1984 Big Brother as the threat. Character development arrived about 2/3 through the book. It arrived just when I was getting a little annoyed at the lack of maturity in the 17 year old narrator. :-) Readers can be you critical and judgmental.
If you want a fun story that explores concerns of freedom and privacy in the post 9/11 technology world of today, then pick thisbookup. If you like this, then try Daemon by Suarez and the sequel Freedom. ( )
  wvlibrarydude | Sep 6, 2015 |
Seventeen-year-old master hacker Marcus (aka w1n5t0n) makes a habit of evading school security with a combination of his cellphone, laptop, WifFnder, resourcefulness, and friends. But while skipping school one day, he is caught near the site of a terrorist attack. After six days of harsh interrogation by the Department of Homeland Security, Marcus is released into an ominous San Francisco with a new awareness. Marcus organizes all his hacker friends to fight for their civil liberties and to throw DHS out of his town. Marcus is a wonderful hero fighting to change society, defend principles, and rebel against oppression -- in the spirit of The Hunger Games and Divergent. Doctorow's homage to Orwell raises questions in our post-9/11, post-PATRIOT ACT, world.

The afterword includes materials from an acclaimed cryptologist and a well-known hacker as well as bibliography of resources on intellectual freedom, information access and technological enhancements. Little Brother makes a great discussion book for teens and adults alike.
  ktoonen | May 27, 2015 |
Marcus, a San Franciscan teen is was with friends during a terrorist attack that brought the city to a standstill. Trying to wave down help for a friend injured in the attack, the group is black bagged by DHS agents, held for a week, and harshly interrogated. When all but one of the group are dropped off with the warning that they will be watched, and if they tell anyone they will be imprisoned permanently, Marcus decides to take action. Working with xnet, an underground internet group that operates in such a way that surveillance is very difficult, Marcus finds himself accidentally leading a movement opposing the limitless authority given to the national agencies now operating in his city. The book contains numerous interesting historical references and anecdotes, describing the history of cyphers, internet cryptography and hacking.
The novel is heavy handed in both its message and its attempts to identify with young adult readers. The style, relying more on allegory, less on applicability, detracts from the potential of a fully-formed world and may prevent readers from suspending their disbelief. As well, the attempt to simultaneously heroize and victimize the teens creates a DHS that lacks the cognizant domination of Oceania's government (1984) or Norsefire (V for Vendetta). Instead the complete incompetence of the DHS acts as a motivator for the protagonist, but leaves readers confused by how the DHS conclusions were reached (movies like War Games: The Dead Code use similar themes but explain why the protagonist is targeted and how the federal agents deduce what is happening).
The novel focuses on teen protagonists, making them more aware of current events and better able to react to them than adults. Teens are better hackers, organizers, and digital enthusiasts than adults, and employ highly successful methods of civil disobedience and generating chaos. While novels such as Ender's Game utilize child geniuses, in other novels they are often trained by adults and are able to function as adults in an adult society, rather than being the only characters aware of reality.
The novel poses intriguing ideas, but, though conceptualized from US and British surveillance systems and government agencies, it paints an almost comical picture of adult ignorance (without the satire seen in novels like Catch-22). This may appeal to young teens, but will detract from the reading experience of a broader audience or more discerning young adult, particularly given this is meant to be set around 2007 (or in the present), rather than in a future where numerous social, political, and economic forces have changed mindsets and society (as in 1984 and V for Vendetta). ( )
  Ailinel | May 1, 2015 |
Cory Doctorow's Little Brother raises an alarm about our modern surveillance society--a topic that has gained greater relevance with the NSA revelations--but 1984 it ain't. The book is billed as YA fiction, and I may be incapable of judging YA, but with its oversimplicity and lack of subtlety, it just wasn't very good. Doctorow admits in a foreward that he hammered out the novel in just a few months. That's nothing to brag about. He should have spent more time.

Here are just a couple of my objections:

The hero of the book, as might be expected in a YA story, is a 17-year-old. When a terrorist attack in San Francisco leads the Dept of Homeland Security to implement draconian measures, including kidnapping and imprisoning teenagers (even torturing them), it is our hero Marcus and a group of his peers who are left to "fight the good fight." Adults are relatively worthless in the struggle--so much so that Marcus' movement adopts the slogan to "Don't Trust Anyone Over 25." A computer hacker. Marcus uses his skills to organize a resistance movement. His fight is for individualism, privacy, and personal freedom.

My own experience, however, is that in the fight to preserve personal privacy and freedom, it is precisely the adults who are in the forefront. Young people seem more-than-willing to surrender their privacy over social media. Moreover, if the DHS started rounding up innocent citizens in its effort to isolate terrorists, the adults I know would be raising holy hell.

Moreover, the DHS villains and their superiors are caricatures. The face of evil is the President's Chief of Staff who is quoted as saying no one will care what the DHS does in San Francisco because it's just filled with queers anyone. In the real world, evil doesn't triumph because it presents a snarling face, but because it presents a soothing, seductive one.

Doctorow also takes the unusual step of using the beginning of each chapter to honor a bookseller he admires. Among those he salutes is Amazon. Really? A book about the importance of personal privacy celebrates Amazon, which compiles a tremendous database about the habits of his customers? As is the case with sharing so much personal info over social media. I guess letting someone else know all about you is OK if it is a mega-corporation, rather than the government (which likely is tapped into the Amazon database anyway).

I guess there's a book there that's yet to be written. ( )
  kvrfan | Apr 25, 2015 |
I've heard of this more than once - told myself I'd try to read it if it fell into my hands.... Well, it did, at a bookcrossing meeting, and though I'm thankful that I had the chance, I just could not get into it at all. The attitude of the MC was such a huge turn-off for me I couldn't get past that into the story at all. Also, I don't like dystopias. Seems like a winner for a lot of folks, though - probably a big hit in school libraries. I will ship this bookcrossed hardcover gratis (within the US).
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Apr 14, 2015 |
I haven't spent much time with YA fiction since I was one a couple of (OK, three) decades ago, but I'd recommend Little Brother to the average teen. Regardless of genre or forum, Cory Doctorow writes passionately about net freedom, privacy, and creativity. Big Brother is a(n unfortunately only slightly) dystopian tale set in the near-future in the U.S. where security has trumped privacy rights and features a Department of Homeland Security run amok in its reaction to a terror attack on San Francisco. The main character is a teen boy and his few friends -- to include strong, capable female characters, good and bad -- who use their wits and technical tricks to expose injustice and free the wrongly detained. It's fast-paced and, at times, even educational. Some reviewers complain that Cory spends a little too much time educating, but I think it's perfect for those who aren't familiar with some of the subject matter, like encryption, RFID, and internet protocol to name a few; those who "know" already know, so Cory could come off as overly pedantic with that audience. Cory's message about the slow erosion of freedom in the U.S. in the name of security is an important one and, I would presume, he's a minority voice in the YA lit sphere. We need more writers like him. The only parental warning I'll throw out is that the main character, Marcus, loses his virginity in the story, but there are no "mechanics" of the event described; I'll just say the parties were protected and it was about as innocent an event as could be portrayed. "It" happened and the story moved on..it wasn't glamorized and no special insight was given that would drive your YA reader into doing.."it." A fun, consistently engaging read and I'm looking forward to reading the sequel, "Homeland." All of Cory's books are free to download at www.craphound.com. If you get something out of them, do him a solid and buy some (or a lot) of copies for school libraries near you. ( )
  traumleben | Mar 1, 2015 |
I loved it. Personally I would have preferred slightly less of the technology explanations and history lessons but maybe that's just because most of it was not new to me. That's really the only reason I didn't give it five stars. Moving on to Homeland straight away. ( )
  jonsson | Feb 11, 2015 |
Sentence description: Teen hacker is abused by the Department of Homeland Security in a near future San Francisco, and proceeds to fights back against the suppression of freedom and government-generated fear that follows a devastating terrorist attack on the city.

I am glad I read (actually, listened to) this book. I am not sure I would say I enjoyed it, completely, but I don't think I was meant to. I did find it frightening. I would find myself going to look at the news and half-expecting to see accounts of the crazy stuff going on in SF. It felt real to me, and believable.

And also, quite often very funny, and informative. I'm a geeky person and a gamer myself so I loved the asides into the games (even LARP!) and technology (especially cause it pretty much all really exists out there!) and gaming and geek culture. I laughed out loud when the main characters used the phrase "a maze of twisty passages, all alike" at one point and loved that one of the critical climactic scenes involved hundreds of people dressing up as vampires and playing a giant vampire game in the middle of the city.

The DHS is portrayed as being pretty much caricatures of evil bullies getting off on power, and there's no time for exploration of any other reason why they might be doing what they are doing. I would have liked to have seen that delved into further, but I admit it's probably outside the scope of this book. I did appreciate, however, the range of reactions we see in the main character's father and friends and schoolmates. Some embrace the curtailment of freedom in the hope it will bring safety, others just look away, still others want to fight but just can't do it.

I have to add a note on the audio-version here: I found the reading a bit odd and stilted in places -- perhaps this is a function of the abundance of IMs and emails and technotalk in the book.

So to sum up, this isn't a light gentle books to entertain, and I suspect it's best for more mature readers due to the amount of "adult content", but for the right reader, this is a book that will linger for a long time.
  devafagan | Jan 2, 2015 |
I was in high school when 9/11 happened, and this book resonated with me in a very personal way. I remember, like the protagonist, being horrified at what was happening to the country, and feeling alone in that sentiment.

And of course, being a Cory Doctorow novel, this book is full of kickass heroes and references to cool real things. ( )
  lavaturtle | Dec 31, 2014 |
RGG: Amazingly believable story of a teenager who, using technology, organizes a populist rebellion against a homeland security organization who removes personal liberties after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Scary, exciting, fascinating. Reading Level: YA.
  rgruberexcel | Dec 23, 2014 |
RGG: Amazingly believable story of a teenager who, using technology, organizes a populist rebellion against a homeland security organization who removes personal liberties after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Scary, exciting, fascinating. Reading Level: YA.
  rgruberexcel | Dec 23, 2014 |
RGG: Amazingly believable story of a teenager who, using technology, organizes a populist rebellion against a homeland security organization who removes personal liberties after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Scary, exciting, fascinating. Reading Level: YA.
  rgruberexcel | Dec 23, 2014 |
I got this book as a present from my son who felt I would enjoy it given our similar feelings on the over reaching of the government and NSA encroachments. I have to admit that I was very much hesitant to read this book given that the last time my son told me about one of the best books he had ever read, it was Crooked Little Vein. I am sure he is still snickering about luring me into reading that one. Thankfully, this book is in a totally different realm, so I shan't need nearly as much therapy to get over it.

Little Brother is an excellent book about what happens when the government gets out of hand and dismisses the people's bill of rights. Not too far removed from so very much of what we see happening in the world right now with the NSA and other government agencies that have been allowed to sidestep personal privacy and encroach on people's lives.

The story is told through the eyes of a group of high school kids who are playing a game and are in the wrong place at the wrong time when a bomb blows up the Bay Bridge. They wind up in the hands of Homeland Security on Treasure Island where they are interrogated for days with methods that are barbaric and criminal. When they are finally release, they are given threats of what will happen to them if they speak to anyone of what happened to them.

Through Marcus' eyes, you watch the transformation in the adults in his life as they find ways to accept and cope with the loss of freedom they are subjected to as their city becomes a police state run by Homeland Security. Marcus and his friends decide to wage an electronic war with the government and it becomes a cat and mouse game throughout.

Its a good story and one that needs to be told and needs even more to be read. The biggest problem I have with it is that it is written to the young gamers and computer geeks. Though he does try at times to explain the geek speak in many of the areas, it takes up a very large chunk of the novel and will cost him the readership of many people that don't share the vocabulary and interest in such things as role playing games and such. If his goal is just for the crowd that understands this, then it is fine. Because maybe he is plying to them to spur them into action to change the things he sees happening in the world. If that is his intent, then he has done an excellent job. But, if he wanted to reach a wider audience, he would need to cut some of the geekdom out of the book. The problem is that it is hard to tell which of the two he wants because at one turn he seems to be speaking to the young adult readership and then a few pages along, he seems to be addressing the rest of the readership.

My son tells me that the second book is even better than this one and has also sent that to me. So, when I get to it, I will see if he has made up his mind what his readership is in it. I will hope that it is the more general readership as he has a story to tell that I think needs to be told. He is a very good writer and I did enjoy the book. Particularly, the knowledge that much of what he refers to in the book is actual technology that we currently have. For those that think that people are being paranoid and our privacy is not being encroached upon at an unreasonable level, they really need to read this book. For those that he calls to action in the jacket of the book, I hope they take heed and take up the challenge.
http://sephipiderwitch.com/little-brother-cory-doctorow/ ( )
  sephibitchwitch | Dec 7, 2014 |
A great book. I plan to read more Cory Doctorow and love his web site Boing Boing. Also this book invoked a sort of need to learn how to program, I have lost that need, but this book reopened my need to learn to write code. So today I went and bought a book on HTML Code. So hoping for new things this year. A book that changed my year! ( )
  Gregorio_Roth | Dec 5, 2014 |
A great book. I plan to read more Cory Doctorow and love his web site Boing Boing. Also this book invoked a sort of need to learn how to program, I have lost that need, but this book reopened my need to learn to write code. So today I went and bought a book on HTML Code. So hoping for new things this year. A book that changed my year! ( )
  Gregorio_Roth | Dec 5, 2014 |
real fun book, about teenagers, and written so a teenager would enjoy it, but it also has themes of Down With The Man, and anti goverment sentiments. Real fun read! ( )
  Mrdrewk | Dec 2, 2014 |
Little Brother is a fairly entertaining book about 16 & 17 year olds in San Francisco turned into a police state by the Department of Homeland Security, how they fight back by subverting the security apparatus's own technology, and ultimately save the day for Truth, Justice, and the Constitution.

That sounds kind of snarky, because the story isn't bad, but it's also only about 1/2 of the novel. The other half is Cory Doctrow explaining basic encryption, RFIDs, data mining, andsurveillance technology along side trying to convince you to worry about your own information security and resist panopticon government. Chance are, if you're reading his book you already know a bunch of that anyway.

Probably the best audience for this book is a friend of yours, in their teens or 20s who doesn't think there is anything wrong with government information drag-nets because "innocent people have nothing to hide" and "it's for our protection" but still might be persuaded otherwise. ( )
  grizzly.anderson | Nov 14, 2014 |
I was disappointed in this book. It has some compelling things to say about national security, government surveillance, and computer security.

The characters lack any nuance are all starkly grouped into good or bad. The protagonist is a high school student living in San Francisco when a terrorist attacks the city. Government security and surveillance is heightened to a ridiculous and for me, unbelievable level. ( )
  dougcornelius | Oct 9, 2014 |
Fun and all too relevant. This will be a mainstay of my gift-giving for kids. ( )
  lquilter | Oct 5, 2014 |
The book had a lot of potential, but just seemed to fall short. I enjoyed the concept, though at times it felt a bit flat. There was definitely a tendency towards telling, as opposed to showing. If you aren't willing to read through a number of info-dumps, this probably isn't the book for you. (admittedly I found the info in said dumps interesting; the problem is when they interrupt the flow of the story)

All of that said, it does prompt us to examine our privacy, rights and the "price of freedom" in a post-9/11, Patriot Act country

( )
  zephyrsky | Sep 30, 2014 |
An interesting idea and the novel has its good areas (well, at least one), but there are far too many boring parts and the plot ends up very predictable and silly. ( )
  piersanti | Sep 28, 2014 |
Honestly I was expecting something more like a novel and less like one of Cory Doctorow's blog posts. There's a lot of infodumping in this - good info, but the whole first half of the book has more info than story.

And...well, books like this always date, but I feel like this one has dated badly in just a few years. Not the technology, that's all still pretty good, but the social situation. Reading about an upper-middle-class white kid going to war against the government in the wake of everything happening in Ferguson, Missouri makes me want to pat him on the head and give him a cookie. (Doctorow does address the race disparity once - but only once.) ( )
  jen.e.moore | Sep 11, 2014 |
This review and others posted over at my blog

Marcus and his three friends cut school early to play their favorite online/scavenger hunt game when the San Francisco Bay Bridge gets blown up in a terrorist attack. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, they’re picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and imprisoned for days. When Marcus is released under surveillance and warned never to speak of what he endured, the city is on lockdown and every citizen is treated as a potential threat. Bristling at the lack of their rights and freedoms, Marcus and other teenagers start an internet revolution to outsmart the technology of the DHS and take back their city.

What I liked:
I want to apologize now – I have a million stickies in this book and there are a lot of things I’d like to discuss, but I also don’t want this review to be incredibly long, so I’ll try to keep my thoughts organized. Just in case I don’t though…sorry!

Doctorow’s writing immediately grabbed me – I really loved Marcus’ voice. He was very smart for his age, yet not overly so, as he made his fair share of mistakes. He’s very tech savvy too, but each time he introduces a new phrase or gadget to the reader, Marcus explains it in a way that makes sense (well…except cryptology) but doesn’t feel overbearing. There’s a lot of technology in this book and honestly, I’m sure more of it exists then I realize. Marcus talks about gait recognition cameras that monitor the way kids walk through hallways to try to match their gait to a personal profile and tracking devices in library books because the government wouldn’t authorize putting tracking devices on students themselves. There are school-issued laptops that record every keystroke and only allow access to sanctioned websites. Debit cards, subway passes and fast passes in cars track the daily movements of the citizens who use them, creating more profiles that can be monitored for “abnormalities.” There are truancy apps that adults can use to post photos of the kids when they’re out and about during the school day, and other crazy inventions that really set the tone and gave me a “big brother is watching” feel that I enjoyed. In fact, it made me a little paranoid about my current use of technology (so many books making me paranoid this year – a sign that I’m reading a lot of excellent writers!)

Doctorow clearly did a lot of research on technology and it shows in a positive way. I was engrossed in both the plot and the new technological developments being thrown my way. There’s also a large focus on freedom and what that means to residents of the United States. When the bomb goes off and the city goes into lockdown, a lot of personal freedoms are sacrificed for safety and the general message is that we should not have to give up privacy for safety or security.

When Marcus is first captured he’s in shock and comments on terrorist in a way that made me realize I’m of a similar mindset: “I knew that in the abstract there were terrorist somewhere in the world, but they didn’t really represent any risk to me. There were millions of ways that the world could kill me – starting with getting run down by a drunk burning his way down Valencia – that were infinitely more likely and immediate than terrorist. Terrorist kill a lot fewer people than bathroom falls and accidental electrocutions. Worrying about them always struck me as about as usefully as worrying about getting hit by lightning.”

In the aftermath of this attack Marcus is questioned by the DHS as a possible terrorist himself and is told that “honest people don’t have anything to hide,” in keeping with the theme of sacrificing all personal privacy for the sake of stopping terrorism. There are a lot of great quotes on this subject, like “Imagine if someone locked you in the back of a police car and demanded that you prove that you’re not a terrorist.”

Doctorow also talks about freedom through Marcus and I enjoyed his perspective: “I can’t go underground [...] waiting for freedom to be handed to me. Freedom is something you have to take for yourself.”

“[...] no matter how unpredictable the future may be, we don’t win freedom through security systems, cryptography, interrogations and spot searches. We win freedom by having the courage and the conviction to live every day freely and act as a free society, no matter how great the threats are on the horizon.”

What I didn’t like:
While Marcus made mistakes and couldn’t constantly outsmart the DHS, I do feel like he was a bit of an over-hero. Yes, I realize there are teenagers out there who understand technology the way Marcus does and there are creative hackers who can outsmart any system if they put their mind to it. But Marcus still felt a little too perfect. He did have help from some friends, both in real life and via the internet, so this is just me nitpicking.

I was also greatly confused by cryptology. That was a topic that Marcus brought up several times and in great detail. I understand it was part of his character; he was very interested in it and understood it well, so that showed. But at times I was reading paragraphs about public keys and private keys and formulas and I felt like my head was spinning. I had to skim through some sections because I just felt the level of detail Doctorow was giving wasn’t of interest to someone who has no background in crypto and I really wasn’t interested in learning all the Doctorow was trying to teach me. But there were only a few sections muddied down by crypto so it wasn’t something that annoyed me throughout the whole book.


Overall I really enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading the sequel, Homeland. I would recommend this for anyone who is into young adult books with a tech-savvy spin, as well as those who are into more modern dystopias, if you will. ( )
  MillieHennessy | Aug 19, 2014 |
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