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.