Since 2001, authoritarians in the South Korean government have been attempting to pass mass surveillance legislation, and they have seized upon the latest North Korean saber-rattling as the perfect excuse for ramming it through the SK Parliament. more
Derek Bruff teaches a first-year college writing seminar in mathematics, an unusual kind of course that covers a lot of ground, and uses a novel as some of its instructional material — specifically, my novel Little Brother. more
It hits shelves today, featuring an essay I wrote specifically for this edition, tying together Korean politics — especially surveillance and censorship — with global mass-surveillance and the themes in the book.
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.
James Scot Brodie is a teacher at Presidio Middle School in San Francisco, where Jen Wang and I spoke last month on our tour for In Real Life; prior to my arriving, he assigned my book Little Brother to his students, and produced some curricular materials that he’s generously given to me to publish.
I was thrilled when the librarian announced that Cory Doctorow was going to make an appearance at our school. As an English teacher, aspiring writer, and complete nerd — I find author visits a nice perk to the job. The students too, like to get out of the classroom whenever they can and author visits are a rare treat. I’ve been teaching for about five years and I’ve met two authors. It then dawned on me that we seldom read the books of the authors that come to visit our school. Mainly because our closets are filled with tons of dead people. Maybe five percent of our class sets are from the living, although Mr. Gomez somehow scored 40 copies of The Fault In Our Stars (he must know someone).
Nevertheless, it was early September and Doctorow was set to visit on October 16. I was determined to have my students read the book, but we only had ten copies from a box on loan from the public library. Now, Doctorow is super generous with his stuff and offers a lot of material to educators and students for free via his website, so I figured I would tap into this and download the book. At the same time I didn’t want to print up 102 copies for my 3 English classes. That would take forever, cost a lot, and kill too many trees. So, long story short, this is what I did: I purchased the audio book, and two copies of the text. I read the book, making “marginal” and underlining vocabulary words, slowly sculpting it into a “teacher’s edition.” I also came up with questions for each chapter. Most the questions are simple guided questions (who, what, when, where and why), but I also made sure that each chapter has a question where the students can relate the reading to their own lives — these inquiries were also great springboards for interesting classroom discussions. I printed up these sheets and students completed them as we listened to the audio book. This is where the second book comes into play – I used the unmarked version of the text to display on the white board at the front of the class via my ELMO projector for all the class to see. I was surprised at how huge I could get the book — it was roughly four feet by six feet and I didn’t know this but the little orange button on the left is for focusing (a student pointed this out to me). I’ll have to say it was one of the most positive reading experiences I’ve ever had with a class. It may be psychological but the minute I projected the book on the board and hit the play button on the audio book — students were enthralled as if watching a movie. Of course it may also have something to do with Mr. Doctorow’s book — there is a lot in there that the modern day teenager can relate to.
The entire unit took about six weeks. Students gathered all their vocabulary/question sheets into a portfolio. I purchased card stock and brass fasteners for students to make covers for these portfolios (which they decorated themselves) and this turned out to be a great boon for students that couldn’t afford to purchase their own copies of the book, because when the big day came — Doctorow autographed copies for his admirers. And this is how the lesson plan ended up here, Cory signed a few, thought they were cool and offered to post them. There are a couple of other activities that I’ve thrown in, but the above is the real meat and potatoes. Use them as you like, put your own personal spin on them and hopefully it will save you some time.
For the first time, one of my books has been challenged. The students at Booker T Washington High in Pensacola, Florida were to be assigned Little Brother for their summer One School/One Book read. At the last instant — and over the objections of the head of the English department and the chief librarian — the principal reversed the previous approval and seems to have cancelled the One School/One Book program outright. My amazing publishers, Tor Books, have volunteered to send 200 copies to the school for the students to read, and I’ll participate in a videoconference with the students in the coming school year. Read all about it on Boing Boing.