I just finished reading Cory Doctorow’s young adult novel, Little Brother, last week and wanted to post my commentary on what a fun book it was. I first started following Cory Doctorow’s postings online at Boing Boing about a year ago. He is a co-editor of the site and often posts items that jump out at me, such as how evil DRM is. When he released this book, he did so using Creative Commons licensing, rather than Copyrighting. This lets him give the book away online for free, while also selling hardback copies in common bookstores.
I bought the hardback for my girlfriend, but also downloaded the PDF version so I could quickly search and find what I wanted to quote later in this post. Its handy having both versions.
The title of the book is a play on the Big Brother concept from that novel everyone has read, 1984. The reason the adjective is changed to "little" is that the people in this story who are doing the real covert monitoring are teenagers. They are fighting back against a corrupt Department of Homeland Security, and they are using some of the most fun technology I’ve ever read about to do so.
The story is aimed at the young adult audience, but any adult who enjoys a good spy/tech novel will love it. The characters are developed well and are generally likeable. Doctorow writes this story from the first-person perspective of the main character, Marcus Yallow, who unwittingly becomes the leader of the resistance against the DHS. Without giving too much of the plot away, Marcus "comes of age" and all that good stuff like most young adult novels get into, but he does so while launching a secret war against his own government, which is pretty exciting.
There is a lot of explanation of various technologies in the book, most of which are technologies that actually exist today and can be easily acquired. One such explanation stuck out like a sore thumb to me because it was the inner monologue Marcus gives before an all-night programming session. He explains what programming computers is like to him, and I thought Doctorow nailed it in a way that made me especially proud to be a programmer myself. I’ve inserted a few paragraphs of that section below:
“If you’ve never programmed a computer, you should. There’s nothing like it in the whole world. When you program a computer, it does exactly what you tell it to do. It’s like designing a machine — any machine, like a car, like a faucet, like a hinge for a door — using math and instructions. It’s awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe.
“A computer is the most complicated machine you’ll ever use. It’s made of billions of microminiaturized transistors that can be configured to run any program you can imagine. But when you sit down at the keyboard and write a line of code, those transistors do what you tell them to.
“Most of us will never build a car. Pretty much none of us will ever create an aviation system. Design a building. Lay out a city.
“Those are complicated machines, those things, and they’re off limits to the likes of you and me. But a computer is like, ten times more complicated, and it will dance to any tune you play. You can learn to write simple code in an afternoon. Start with a language like Python, which was written to give nonprogrammers an easier way to make the machine dance to their tune. Even if you only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it. Computers can control you or they can lighten your work — if you want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code.”
If I weren’t already a coder, I would become one after reading that.
My only complaint with the book is the handful of places where Doctorow uses alternate spellings of words, which are popular memes online, to make his tech-savvy main character seem like a real 1337 d00d. For instance, he describes a girl as being h4wt (hot) multiple times and it grated on my nerves a little more each time. That’s hardly enough though to detract from the rest of the book, which was an enjoyable quick read.
I heartily recommend this to anyone who likes tech-ish fiction. The link to the download of the free copy is at the top of this post, and the hardback retails at just about any bookseller. Enjoy!