Friday, May 22, 2009

Preaching Against Preachiness

Do you remember that Bob Dylan song that came out a few years ago? The chorus ended with the line: “I used to care… but things have changed.” If you can hum that tune, you’re probably not the target audience for Little Brother. Reading it feels a bit like being preached to by a very earnest friend. Perhaps they just found God. Perhaps they just found politics. Perhaps you even agree with them. But being shaken by the lapels while they try to convince you Just! How! Important! This! Is! does grate. I began to really grok that Dylan song when, a couple of years after graduating from college, I stopped reading The Nation. I mostly agreed with what they said, mostly it wasn’t news to me, and I mostly grew weary of their vaguely accusatory proselytizing.

The topic of Doctorow’s story is privacy, government intrusions thereon, and ways to use tech to preserve your rights. It makes the point (with which I completely agree) that government security, especially the kind of theatre associated with taking off our shoes in airports, doesn't make us any safer. Nor does locking up suspicious persons in secret jails far away from the normal justice system.

Which is what happens to our hero, Marcus. He's a pretty harmless hacker kid, ditching school to play games with his friends. Unfortunately, he's out and about when a terrorist attack takes out the Oakland Bay Bridge. He and his friends get rounded up by Homeland Security. They're interrogated, and eventually freed (after their parents have spent days thinking they may have been killed). All except for Marcus' best friend Daryl. He was wounded when he was taken into custody, and never released. Marcus has no idea if he's alive or dead.

We get excellent depictions of the physical and psychological approaches that interrogators use to break down subjects, and we see them being used on innocent American citizens. We also see how this sort of unilateral power is an invitation to abuse: because Marcus holds out a little too long demanding a lawyer and his rights as an American, he's detained and messed with just a little bit longer. He also gets an extra label as someone to be observed and tracked after release, and he's instructed never to tell anyone what happened.

All this turns Marcus into a full-fledged radical. He mobilizes all his hardware, software and internet savvy to start messing with the security state. We get lectures on RFID tracking, seminars on encryption, explication of routing routines, and master classes in other software and social hacks used to get around security. The point is made, repeatedly, that security systems are a joke that don't make anyone safer but do allow the government to abuse its citizens. To which I say Amen! However, an additional message seems to be that if you aren't running ParanoidLinux on a box that you built yourself, flicking through all your neighbors' wi-fi connections to disguise where your packets are coming from and using PGP on all your exterior communications, you're a sheeple who deserves what's coming to you.

This a book for teenagers, and understandably adults don't come off very well. There are only four who are at all sympathetic: Marcus' Mom who is British and thinks all this is terribly uncivilized, one particular social studies teacher who actually teaches civil liberties and allows free classroom discussion and eventually is fired and investigated, a Turkish coffee shop owner who starts allowing only cash transactions so that the government can't track them (he's had enough of government abuse in his homeland) and the crusading investigative reporter who is crucial in the success of Marcus' campaign. All the other adults are either abusive figures of government power or sheeple like Marcus' Dad who spouts off all the pro-government straw-man arguments.

As I am now pushing 30, and have only once built a computer from scratch and that with lots of help from a friend, this book is not aimed at me. I probably would have appreciated it more between the ages of 17 and 22 when I too CARED passionately about all this stuff, subscribed to the Nation, went to Green Party meetings, and got into gleeful arguments with people who didn't agree with me. So for all the kids out there going through that phase now, this will be both a great read and a great resource.

So other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? Well, it's a bit mixed. Marcus' rise to power as leader of a local hacker collective seemed a bit of a stretch. On the other hand, the teenage character portrayals seemed spot on. I was especially fond of the geek-girl girlfriend who acquires Marcus; she reminded me quite a bit of myself at that age. A quibble: while the cast of characters is as admirably racially mixed as you would expect of a half-way realistic book set in San Francisco, everyone here is middle class or above. There's certainly nothing here to empower poor folks. In fact, the actual resolution only comes about because the investigative reporter was a college friend of Marcus' mother--not the sort of contact working class people tend to have. One of Marcus' friends may come from a poor family, but he's such a computer genius that he's been working for a software design house since he was twelve--also not a typical option for the poor.

Overall, there's a lot to like here, but I was continually put off by the heavy-handedness of it all. On the one hand I felt like Doctorow was preaching to the choir, as I agree with his political stances and vote accordingly. But on the other hand I felt like I was being repeatedly castigated for being non-133t. So while I suspect that this book will go over very well with its intended audience, at 29 that audience no longer includes me.

Full disclosure (both as an experiment and as a result of the discussion at Torque Control): I met Cory once at a Strange Horizons party at WorldCon in 2004 (before I was really a reviewer). He was quite nice and we chatted briefly about Disneyland. He signed my copy of Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom, which I enjoyed. I also strongly agree with his stances on Creative Commons, copyright law, and DRM. However, I don’t read Boing Boing, and I didn’t enjoy Eastern Standard Tribe as much as I’d hoped I would. Thus while I own his book Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, his work hadn’t floated back up to the top of my to-read pile until this Hugo nomination.


John D. said...

Favorite line: "So other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?"

I apologize in advance for using it sometime in the future without giving due credit due to my failing memory. Except for that line, it's killer. :)

David B. Ellis said...

Yeah it was heavily didactic. But I don't mind didactic if I find the story engaging (and I'm 38---so I'm not exactly in what you're calling the target audience).

Karen Burnham said...

John - Feel free! I borrowed it from an old boss of mine in the first place. ;-)

David- Sometimes I don't mind it either. On this one it just kept intruding and throwing me out of the story. YMMV.

Maureen Kincaid Speller said...

Karen, I had a similar response to this novel. I wanted to like it, really I did, and I think I would have loved it when I was younger, but it was so clearly not aimed at me (for disclosure purposes I'm 50 and actually enjoy a certain amount of hacker-type fiction) I didn't manage to finish it. Paul (57) did enjoy it. Go figure.

Maureen Kincaid Speller said...

Hmm, that wasn't supposed to happen like that. Previous comment was me.

Karen Burnham said...

Maureen- Thanks! Good to know I'm not the only one. I was a bit afraid I was turning into a "darn you kids get off my lawn" cranky person.