Little Brother Book Review • 26 May 2008 • The SnowBlog

Little Brother Book Review

Time to air some of my preconceptions. I think of most SnowBlog readers as being more sophisticated about literature than I am. You listen to more Radio 4 (in the evenings sometimes!) and you like more classical music than I do; you probably have complex opinions about the Dutch School and the Arts & Crafts movement. You can reel off the names of the Bloomsbury set but struggle with the cast of Eastenders. You'd have plenty to say when comparing the merits of Eliot and Dickens, and there are Booker prize winners that you genuinely enjoyed reading, no pretense or lying required. And none of you can write a decent computer program or see why you'd want to. Silly and fanciful stereotypes I know, but if I'm right, then you probably won't like Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. But I loved it. It's set a year or two into the future, just to give it room to be fiction. It picks up a theme that we're all familiar with: how, over the last eight years, there's been more CCTV everywhere, more no-fly lists, extraordinary rendition, biometric passports, taking your shoes off and throwing away all liquids before you can fly, waterboarding, US scandals over domestic spying and illegal wiretaps, and constant calls for more security everywhere and less privacy anywhere - except if you're in charge, in which case everything you do seems to be classified. It's all about giving up our freedoms to protect them. Little Brother takes all of that one small and believable step further. We've all got used to the idea that if we do something suspicious at the wrong moment we could be in serious trouble, even if we've committed no crime. Little Brother follows a rather wholesome San Francisco teenager, called Marcus, who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when something really, really bad happens. The line between suspicion and guilt having become so blurred, he finds himself being treated like a terrorist. And when the authorities have finished abusing and threatening him - at least for the time being - Marcus realises that whoever all these paranoid and invasive rules are protecting, it's clearly not him - or anyone he cares about. For the rest of the book, he uses his inventive geekiness and that of his much persecuted friends to resist the security clampdown and to carve out a little privacy in a world that wants to read his e-mail, monitor his travel patterns and lock him up if he complains. Marcus is both more knowledgeable than most seventeen-year-olds and a little more wholesome - but not ridiculously so, and the story requires both of those traits. It needs to show that as a country flirts with the idea of becoming a police state, then sooner or later every type of person will get caught up in the security machine - not just angry young Arab men, but 'good kids' too, because tighter rules almost always tend to criminalise being a teenager. And Marcus needs to be wicked smart because the book is packed with fabulously subversive tips on how to beat security systems, locate surveillance cameras, communicate untraceably and figure out who to trust - which as one of the book's recurring themes suggests - should probably exclude anyone over twenty-five. Clearly this book has an agenda and if you believe that only bad people have anything to fear from an incipient police state, you'll be annoyed by it. Personally, I thought it was marvellously entertaining: really interesting, really fun. Cory doesn't cheat too much: he has all the counter-arguments to his hero's views in there, some of which drive a wedge between him and his friends and family. And his hero, Marcus, finds time for other things besides intrigue: He meets a girl, and that relationship becomes just as much of a reason to read on as the threat that he'll be detained and perhaps 'disappeared' overseas. The book is written with something of the YA (=Young Adult) audience in mind - though that didn't cause me any problems at all (draw your own conclusions over what that means). But I'd love to know what brainy mid-teens make of it - assuming you want to put anything so frankly seditious into their hands. Before handing it to them, you might wish to know that there's violence, some sex and lots of information which, if used to its full extent, could get you thrown in prison. But on the plus side, there's relatively little swearing, so buy a copy for a young person today. And then read it before handing it over.
The book's technology: [contains spoilers] In the comments, Lee cites some critics who think the technology in the book is too convenient, or the bad guys too slow on the uptake, which amounts to weak plotting. There are nits I could pick with the book, but they don't really concern the technology. For instance, in the book, a group of kids use a future version of the Xbox (the Xbox Universal) to communicate. They load a special version of Linux onto it, in place of the Microsoft-supplied software, and then use the ability of the boxes to link to each other wirelessly to form their own mini-internet which they call the Xnet. The Xnet also makes use of ordinary internet links, often links belonging to unsuspecting Xbox owners outside of the group. The Department of Homeland Security are slow to notice this. One criticism is that the DHS would surely notice an increase in encrypted traffic. This is actually a niggle brought up by the characters in the book, and their fix is to persuade a friend who runs a music site to encrypt downloads of songs as a way to create lots more encrypted traffic and thus hide the suspicious activity. First off, these are several thousand kids in a city of seven million. Secondly, lots of things use encryption already (banking, shopping, some e-mail). And thirdly, because they're often piggybacking off other people's internet connections it's going to spread out the evidence. It's not clear to me that the authorities would notice anything, but even if they did, the story deals with that problem promptly. And while its fix - happening to know someone who owns a music site - is convenient, there would have been lots of ways to achieve the same thing. If it hadn't been done with music it could have been done with file sharing or gaming, for instance. One could modify a BitTorrent network to hide a VPN for communicating. Or how about if they'd hosted their own MMORPG, hacked to hide communications within the game transfers? We're talking about two or three thousand techno-literate kids, on the edge of Silicon Valley. It's not a stretch that they would have useful contacts in a game, website or bittorrent network. There's also the question that the machines running the Xnet are Xbox Universals given away for free. Surely this is just a cute idea, rather than an important plot point. Cory saw that Xbox 360s actually cost rather more to make than their retail price and posited a future where a box is given away for free and the revenue made entirely on the games. But if that idea doesn't appeal, you don't need special Xboxes for the plot to work. You could use a LiveCD of a Linux distro on any PC that's not physically bugged. Cory could have had his kids check their PCs very carefully for physical bugs and then, say, boot Knoppix off flash drives and then hide the drives when they're not in use. Any version of Linux would do, provided the kids in the novel wrote a few extra scripts and tunneling protocols; ParanoidLinux is just a cute idea: having a version of Linux already in existence that paranoid people can use. In fact it's such a cute idea that there's a group at work coding it right now. So by the time the novel takes places, there almost certainly will be something called ParanoidLinux that works exactly like it's supposed to. Similarly, if you don't think that the Xnet is plausible, then there are already mesh networks in existence, in places like Seattle and MIT's roofnet. You take a cheap wireless router and load new software on it (freely available for download right now). The routers link to each other automatically and form their own network. Another critic thinks the police would notice kids reprogramming the chips in people's toll passes and railcards. But in the novel, the kids use portable devices that reprogram nearby RFID chips automatically and from a distance (after all, the point of RFID is that it doesn't need physical contact). Doing so involves having the reprogrammer hidden in your bag and walking down the street; what's to spot? Whether the specific passes mentioned in the book really can be hacked with freely available equipment, I have no idea. But they could almost certainly be copied and cloned, as here (the link discusses a method for cloning Oyster cards). The point is that if any one technical twist in the book - or even all of them - for some reason seem wrong or bad or silly - an assessment I don't really understand or agree with - there are plenty of ways to achieve the same thing. Cory is an ex-Sys Admin and he had computer security consultants (one of whom writes an afterword for the book) read early drafts of the book. If the feedback had been 'this would never work' it would have been simple to make a few changes and to keep exactly the same plot but alter some of the technical details. To me, that means there isn't a problem with the technical plot points or their convenience.


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