Good Math, Bad Math

I was recently fortunate enough to get a review copy of Cory Doctorow’s new book, Little Brother“>”Little Brother”. I’ve never read Doctorow before, but the book
was edited by Patrick Neilsen Hayden, who I think is the best editor in
the business, and Patrick says that this book is one of the best things
he’s ever worked on. In his words, it’s “one of the books that, should I happen to be run down by a beer truck next tuesday, I’d most like to be remembered for having helped into print”. So when Patrick posted on his blog that he had review copies available, I jumped at the chance.

As you can guess from the title, the book is a kind of 21st century
“1984″. The basic storyline (avoiding any major spoilers) is that
there’s a terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the immediate aftermath,
a teenager named Marcus and three of his friends get picked up by the Department of Homeland Security. After being held and harshly interrogated for a few days, three of the four get released, with a warning never to tell
anyone where they’d been.

After getting out, Marcus and his friends discover that in the aftermath
of the attack, the city has effectively turned into a police state. Every time that anyone uses a credit card, an EZpass, it’s tracked by DHS. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. And anyone who’s activity tracked by all of this appears out of the norm are treated as potential terrorists.

So Marcus decides to fight back.

It’s a good idea for a story. Unfortunately, the execution of the story is
really disappointing. It’s extremely pedantic at times, as Doctorow goes into simultaneously detailed and shallow explanations of things like cryptography, histogram pattern analysis, and such. But if that were the only problem,
I wouldn’t be so disappointed by the book.

The problem is, it’s full of convenient events that make it easy for
our hero to evade the DHS. It just happens that Microsoft have away
thousands and thousands of next-gen Xboxes. It just happens that someone
had cracked those XBoxes, and ported something called “Paranoid Linux” to
it. (Paranoid Linux is a version of Linux that encrypts everything, and
multiplexes data over as many wifi links as it can find.) It just happens
our hero has a copy of the XBox distribution of ParanoidLinux, and an unused XBox. It just happens that the biggest ISP in SanFran is a file-sharing-centric service, and the head programmer is our hero’s best friend.

It also portrays the authorities as foolishly blind. Now, I don’t think
that an fascistic police force is an intelligent organization. But either
they’re observing everything, or they’re not. The police notice when people
ride different subways than normal. They notice when people buy different things than normal, do different things than normal. But when Marcus goes around handing out DVDs with ParanoidLinux on them, the DHS doesn’t notice.
Kids can go to RadioShack and buy RFID readers and writers, and carry them around wherever they go – and the DHS doesn’t notice. The DHS is constantly
tracking and correlating credit-card usage and transit usage – but they
don’t notice when kids ride the subway using subway passes with cloned RFIDs.

It’s chock full of things like that. It’s set up as a “lone kid takes on the DHS”, and trying to be halfway between a story and an instruction manual on how to work around surveillance by using encryption. But it relies on so
many unlikely coincidences, so many stupid errors by the villains that just happen to be exactly what our hero needs to make his underground
network work, so many just plain silly things, that it ends up as more
of a hackers wet-dream about how they could outwit the DHS than anything else.

So overall, I was very disappointed. It’s not a bad book. It’s pretty good. It’s a fun, fast, engaging read. Even in his pedantic mode,
Doctorow is an entertaining writer. But it had the potential to be more than
a “pretty good” book. Patrick’s recommendation made me expect it to be an amazing book, and it had the potential to be that. But Doctorow
just didn’t manage to pull it off, which left me disappointed.

Comments

  1. #1 Mark Whybird
    April 30, 2008

    Hi Mark,

    “It just happens that Microsoft have away thousands and thousands of next-gen Xboxes” … should the word “have” in that sentence be something else?

    Thanks for the review :-)

  2. #2 Kyle
    April 30, 2008

    I was going to ask them same thing. I suspect it was, “Hide”. That was a good review, though. Do you read a lot of novels in your spare time, if you have any (spare time)?

  3. #3 Daithi
    May 1, 2008

    I’ve heard some good things about Cory Doctorow, although I have yet read any of his books. So, I was glad to see your review, even if it wasn’t a glowing review.

    Personally, I’m looking forward to Neal Stephenson’s new book Anathem, which comes out in September.

  4. #4 gex
    May 1, 2008

    This seems weird to me. All the rest of my favorite blogs can get so incestuous, I was surprised Doctorow isn’t known here. His is Boing Boing.

    I admire Corey for his completely sane take on copyright and software patent issues as well as security/freedom issues. I’ve never read his fiction though. It sounds like he is too passionate about his day job to make fiction of it. Your critique of all the unlikely but highly convenient events seems like something he would otherwise pick up from others and call them on it.

  5. #5 gex
    May 1, 2008

    I believe the “have” is supposed to be “gave”. Proximity of g and h seem to corroborate…

  6. #6 Steve
    May 1, 2008

    While I get where you’re coming from, sometimes when I read “straight reporting” of these types of things (HSA takes down hacker group), I feel the same way. Bureaucratic incompetence is a staple; if you make them truly competent, there is no story to be had. In a really locked down society, only incompetence or collusion will give you a toehold for a tale. And frankly, I find “Paranoid Linux” completely believable as stated (I haven’t read the book, though). Linux geeks hack every piece of hardware they can to run linux; I’ve run linux on PDAs, wifi routers, phones, ipods, you name it. But frankly, the description of paranoid linux sound more like an outgrowth of OpenBSD. (heh).

    I’ve only read a couple of Cory Doctorow’s works thus far, but I find his work worth the read. No, he’s not Neil Gaiman or Neal Stephenson, but he’s fun to read.

  7. #7 Twi
    May 1, 2008

    I’ve not read ‘Little Brother’ yet, but I do know that Cory Doctorow can be a brilliant writer. Also, I’m not sure if you were aware, but the book is aimed at the teen / young adult crowd. Maybe that explains some of your issues with it?

    Try his first book ‘Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom’; I found it to be a fresh and interesting look at a feasible future.

    And for fecks sake, if you don’t read boingboing.net, subscribe to the feed immediately. I guess I assumed everyone with a blog of any sort or that had used a computer for longer then a few years was a regular reader of BB. Everyone should be. Doctorow isn’t god, but he is pretty damn close when it comes to net-happenings, technology, security, and random weirdness. Give him another chance – read one of his books for grown-ups.

  8. #8 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    May 1, 2008

    Steve:

    I don’t find Paranoid Linux unbelievable in principle. But the fact is, no such thing exists today – and even if it did exist, I don’t believe that a typical high-school hacker will just happen to have a DVD containing the latest version of it for his xbox.

    What was so disappointing to me about the book is that you could write a story very much like this without all of the lucky coincidences. You could use an encryption system to pass information around, using easily available software, to slip information past the police. You could find ways to work around them and their cameras – but it would be hard.

    That’s the problem with the book to me. It’s a failure of imagination. Instead of working out how you could actually get around a paranoid bureaucracy, it piles coincidence on
    lucky break on coincidence to make it easy.

    To pull one example: in the book, they get their encrypted ParanoidLinux network up and running – there’s no way DHS can break their communication. But our hero realizes that DHS can use histogram analysis to discover sources of unusually large amounts of encrypted traffic. That’s a real problem: if you start to send tons of encrypted traffic,
    you’ll stick out like a sore thumb to anyone who’s looking at traffic. In the real world, you’d need to find some way of hiding that. There are tricks that hide the encrypted traffic inside of other things – it’s called steganography. But you’d need to find an excuse to be sending large amounts of stuff in which you could hide the encrypted payload. Realistically, you’d probably do something like create a fake porn server – because they’re a ton of porn traffic on the net every day, with hundreds of slightly different copies the same pictures.

    But in “Little Brother”, instead of working through a process like I just did, to figure out how you could really defeat histogram traffic analysis, he just has the hero’s best friend be the head programmer for the biggest ISP in SF, who can, in a single overnight hacking session, turn on encryption for the majority of traffic flowing over the net. And when suddenly, the majority of internet traffic being monitored by the cops in encrypted, they don’t blink an eye.

  9. #9 cp
    May 1, 2008

    I love boing boing, but I don’t really get the impression that Cory is a particularly good writer. I’ve read some of his short stories and they all seemed, as you say, a little clunky and clumsily didactic. There’s nothing wrong with pedantry, but you have to do it right; unfortunately, Cory’s passions seem to get in the way of his craft.

    I shall read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom this summer and I may well change my mind then, but for now I’m going to assume that he needs a bit more practice.

  10. #10 Remind me
    May 1, 2008

    Wasn’t 1984 significant (in part) because the fascists won? That is, after the “persuasion,” that the protagonist came to be on their side, to believe in what they were saying?

  11. #11 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    May 1, 2008

    It’s true that 1984 did not have a happy ending. I wouldn’t say that the protagonist came to believe in what they were saying, but rather that the protagonist was broken to the point where he was incapable of caring whether they were right or wrong.

    I do think that the ending of 1984 does significantly increase its impact. But I don’t think that the happy ending of Little Brother should be treated as a strike against it. The dark ending of 1984 shouldn’t be considered a necessity for this kind of book. (And it does actually have an element of that; SPOILER:

    As I mentioned in the review, the hero and three of his friends are caught and imprisoned. But only three kids get released. Towards the end, the missing one is found,
    and he’s a thoroughly broken person who’s willing to say or do whatever his captors want him to, just like Winston in 1984.)

  12. You said:

    “What was so disappointing to me about the book is that you could write a story very much like this without all of the lucky coincidences. You could use an encryption system to pass information around, using easily available software, to slip information past the police. You could find ways to work around them and their cameras – but it would be hard. …

    To pull one example: in the book, they get their encrypted ParanoidLinux network up and running – there’s no way DHS can break their communication. But our hero realizes that DHS can use histogram analysis to discover sources of unusually large amounts of encrypted traffic. That’s a real problem: if you start to send tons of encrypted traffic, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb to anyone who’s looking at traffic. In the real world, you’d need to find some way of hiding that. There are tricks that hide the encrypted traffic inside of other things – it’s called steganography. But you’d need to find an excuse to be sending large amounts of stuff in which you could hide the encrypted payload. Realistically, you’d probably do something like create a fake porn server – because they’re a ton of porn traffic on the net every day, with hundreds of slightly different copies the same pictures.

    But in “Little Brother”, instead of working through a process like I just did, to figure out how you could really defeat histogram traffic analysis, he just has the hero’s best friend be the head programmer for the biggest ISP in SF, who can, in a single overnight hacking session, turn on encryption for the majority of traffic flowing over the net. And when suddenly, the majority of internet traffic being monitored by the cops in encrypted, they don’t blink an eye.”

    You have that turn of mind? Either you should be writing fiction, or you should be one of those people fiction writers get to know. Famous novelists need beta readers too.

  13. #13 jayinbmore
    May 2, 2008

    It just happens that Microsoft have away thousands and thousands of next-gen Xboxes. It just happens that someone had cracked those XBoxes…

    This shouldn’t be particularly unbelievable. Give or take a few particulars it happened.

  14. #14 Nomen Nescio
    May 2, 2008

    You have that turn of mind?

    many, perhaps most, comp sci geeks and/or programmers tend to have that sort of detail-oriented, obsessively nitpicking mind. is it unusual among normal people? i know i’m always noticing that sort of thing, myself.

  15. #15 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    May 2, 2008

    Teresa:

    I’ve tried writing fiction. I don’t have the talent.

    I’d be delighted to be a “beta reader” for people who do have the talent that I lack. If you or Patrick know authors who’d like a willing beta-reader for things like this, please feel free to point them at me. I’d really love to help.

  16. #16 Hank Roberts
    May 7, 2008

    > a willing beta-reader

    Better, a beta-PLOT-designer.

    Please.

    If you start coming up with really effective plans and designs that would let people develop such means of resistance … I guess we’ll find out if that’s a problem.

  17. #17 Christopher Mims
    May 7, 2008

    Doctorow is no novelist, that’s for sure. Of course, the proportion of SF that qualifies as even passable literature is vanishingly small.

    On the other hand, there is such a thing as an ‘idea book’ — I’m not convinced that books that successfully convey ideas, despite their clunkiness, deserve to be judged in the same way as serious fiction.

    Which makes me wonder why Doctorow doesn’t simply write non-fiction.

  18. #18 evgen
    May 7, 2008

    > Which makes me wonder why Doctorow doesn’t simply write non-fiction.

    Doctorow’s problem when it comes to writing non-fiction is that he lacks the ability to separate what he wants to be true from what is actually true. This shows up repeatedly is his copyright rants, so I have not doubt that any non-fiction he attempted would have similar flaws. Good tech non-fiction writers are usually reformed journalists who understand how to tease the truth out of a story instead of trying to impose their own version of The Truth® onto the background narrative. Cory wants to be the story, not write about the story; therefore he will never produce good non-fiction.

  19. #19 Seth Manapio
    May 7, 2008

    Well, obviously Cory Doctorow is a novelist. He’s written and published several novels, whether you like them or not.

    As to good, Doctorow’s “Someone comes to town, someone leaves town” could be one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

    Now, this is an opinion, but as I’m a voracious reader, its an opinion that counts. He not only produces good fiction, he produces outstanding fiction, as determined by myself and also by the hugo awards committee.

    Doctorow puts his money where his mouth is on copyright, and he makes money doing it. He really does give his books away for free, and people really do buy them anyway. So you can dismiss his ideas and history of copyright as wishful thinking, but only after you ignore the available evidence. His history is correct and his results are unambigous.

    His problem as a non-fiction writer is… that he’s widely published? Sought after? What?

  20. #20 Seth Manapio
    May 7, 2008

    I should mention, anyone who wants to read “Little Brother” or any other work by Cory Doctorow can download a PDF for free, without registering or otherwise being solicited, at http://www.craphound.com

    Read for yourself.

  21. #21 Carsten Agger
    May 8, 2008

    #8:
    Actually, something like ParanoidLinux does exist today.

    It’s called Polippix and is made by the IT-Political Association of Denmark, an association with opinions on surveillance etc. reminiscent of that of the EFF.

    Polippix is a “privacy-friendly” Linux distribution, with defaults that guarantees your privacy and anonymity; it does this by using Tor and always spoofing your Ethernet MAC, and it was created to (legally) circumvent the Danish implementation of the EU data retention directive which demands that all TCP sessions, all emails and all phone calls and text messages be logged.

    Polippix lets you phone, send emails and surf the net without being logged – more or less exactly like ParanoidLinux. You can read about it at

    http://www.polippix.org/

    Disclaimer: I’m a member of the IT-political Association of Denmark …

  22. #22 Lee
    May 21, 2008

    Mark, I could definitely use a beta reader one of these days … OK, months. Want to think about it? Here’s a link to the first chapter of my new novel CORVUS, a YA F/SF hybrid set in a slightly alternate future in which the minds of teen offenders are uploaded into computers on the pretext of rehabilitation – a form of virtual wilderness therapy:

    http://corvus-lowe.blogspot.com

    (I think Doctorow is a great CC proponent but weak writer: as far as I’m concerned, style and characterisation are terribly important, and the best SF aims not just for world-building, scientific and technical plausibility, or plot consistency – though all of these matter too – but genuine literary qualities.)

    I publish only online, BTW. Matter of principle.

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