Italy’s Multiplayer Edizioni just launched a beautiful new Italian edition of Little Brother with an introduction by Bruce Sterling. It’s the second essay that Bruce has written for one of my books, and it’s my favorite — I was so pleased with it that I asked his permission to reproduce it here, which he’s graciously granted.
Big Brother and His Grandson
This is the second time I have written an introduction to a Cory Doctorow book. However, this is my first effort to explain Cory Doctorow to Italians.
It’s a complicated matter, but maybe not in ways that Italians would expect. Cory Doctorow is highly intelligent and likes elaborate, complex issues, but this book, “Little Brother,” is probably his simplest book. It was written for an audience of high school students. It’s a “young adult” novel: the hero is seventeen.
Our young hero is an idealist and rather unworldly, but he’s intelligent and he does know some unusual things, mostly about technology. He’s eager to explain what he knows. Our valiant student hero spends most of this book either learning or teaching. “Little Brother” is a didactic work of science fiction: it has almost as many well-informed lectures as a Jules Verne novel.
The book is about an American power struggle over electronics. There are two rival groups who both somehow imagine that digital technologies are theirs by right: hackers and the secret police.
Neither hackers nor the secret police have much interest in law, regulation, democracy or public opinion. They are both obsessed with computers and consider civilization to be something old, obsolete and in the way of their destiny. Unfortunately, though they have a lot in common, they despise each other. So, conflict abounds.
In this novel, there is a sabotage incident in San Francisco (near Silicon Valley, the epicenter of American electronics). The police immediately begin using all the electronic power they have covertly accumulated during the War on Terror. Our teenage hero, a hacker, decides to resist with various ingenious acts of electronic civil disobedience.
Of course, no teenager will defeat and abolish federal police services. His real aim is to break the false consciousness of the American population and make them understand that electronic outrages are being perpetrated in their name. Being a hacker, he naturally thinks that normal people will prefer hackers like himself to his enemies the spies. However, as we see in the book, the public is fickle.
This novel has a sequel novel called “Homeland.” When he fled the United States, the NSA informant Edward Snowden took the novel “Homeland” along with him for some leisure reading in exile. This demonstrates that, although this novel is science fiction, it’s concerned with genuine issues.
If you are Italian, you might assume that this book is about American domestic politics, and that Cory Doctorow is an American political partisan. Actually, Cory Doctorow not American: he was born Canadian. He’s also British by marriage. He has a remarkably complicated heritage: his ancestors were Belarusian Jews and his father was born in a refugee camp in Azerbaijan. He’s very well-travelled — even his little seven year old daughter has seen Italy, Japan, Honduras and Iceland.
Cory Doctorow is an electronic activist with global awareness. Most of the incidents in this book have already happened in various parts of the world where hackers have struggled with police repression. His young hero is an American nationalist and patriot, but Cory is not. Cory is an activist and journalist, an acknowledged world expert in electronic network politics, digital economics and free expression.
Most people who are interested in electronic issues want to do something with it that favors their own situation. If they’re business people they want to profit. If they are spies they want to electronically spy. If they are religious they want to spread their gospel. If they’re military they’re interested in cyberwar. Cory Doctorow is well-known as a novelist, but he’s also well-known for abandoning the conventional literary publishing business. I’ve never known any man more at ease with the idea of expressing himself, with a computer, to a global audience, by whatever means are necessary. Cory Doctorow has a universal message, of sorts. Like the Internet, he’s heard and seen everywhere, but doesn’t belong anywhere.
This book is one of Cory’s most successful novels for, I think, a simple reason: it was written in a fit of passion. Cory is a very methodical writer and has severe work discipline. He’s a good researcher, and his fictional work tends to be cool and analytical. He knows how to program computers, and he’s rather good at confronting the glowing screen and arranging his texts in neat blocks.
When writing LITTLE BROTHER, however, Cory had been doing a lot of analytical study — his brain was, if anything, overburdened with the thousand details of electronic civil liberties issues. He had a lot to say, and he suddenly came up with the plot concept of a high-tech city stricken by public emergency.
Thanks to this dramatic arrangement, concepts that might seem arcane and tedious become headlong and exciting. It’s almost as crammed with fast drama one of Jules Verne’s most successful novels, “Around the World in Eighty Days.” There’s a lot of telling, well-observed detail, but it reels by at fast speed because the characters are constantly struggling with emergencies.
Verne’s novel is like an eighty-day catalog of every possible crisis that could happen to a tourist. In the novel Little Brother, it’s as if every electronic problem in the whole world is happening to our hacker hero, all at once, in too tight a space, in too short a time.
“Little Brother” is, of course, an homage to George Orwell’s tyrannical spy “Big Brother” in the Orwell novel “1984.” Orwell’s dystopia has a languid, half-starved pace; there are cruel shortages everywhere, the clothes are ugly, the food is bad, the language is primitive and stupefying. “Little Brother” is very much of our own time: the pace is frantic, people grab fast food, there is too much of everything, the clothes are silly costumes, and everything is over-explained in five or ten different ways.
It’s not that one book is correct about the world, and another is not. Orwell’s book and Doctorow’s book share the clever technique of seeming “prophetic” by describing obscure tragedies that have already happened to real people.
To write “1984” George Orwell had to know a lot about the tyrannies of 1948. To write “Little Brother,” Cory Doctorow had to know a lot about the dark political underside of 2008, and Cory Doctorow knew plenty: enough to compile a bibliography and even to create hardware. The two books may not dress alike or talk alike, but one book really is the grandson of the other.