Little Brother: So Action-Packed, You Might Want To Hang On To Your Xbox

Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. New York, NY: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2008.


"We struck out, four good friends, on our way to decode a clue, win the game--and lose everything we cared about, forever."

Bugs placed in home computers, pinhead cameras installed everywhere, arphids used to keep track of the whereabouts of anyone and everyone, and government officials ensuring that any thoughts contradictory to those held by the government are immediately quashed. Frighteningly enough, this is not a description of a totalitarian state in a far-away land. It is San Francisco, California in a time that is too close for comfort. Reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984, Cory Doctorow's Little Brother is a smart, action-packed, technology-saturated story of censorship, freedom, courage, and closing the gap between adolescence and adulthood.

Marcus Yallow, aka w1n5t0n (pronounced "Winston", a name which may sound familiar to fans of Orwell's 1984 ), is your just your average highly intelligent, computer hacking teenager who spends time hanging out with his friends, playing ARGs (Alternate Reality Games), and devising new ways to outwit the prying but totally ineffectual security systems at Cesar Chavez High School. For example, Marcus randomizes his walk by placing gravel in his shoes, which ensures that no two steps are identical and thus evades the gait-recognition system (18).

One fateful day, Marcus and his friends cut class to get a head start on the latest mission for their favorite ARG, Harajuku Fun Madness, only to get caught in the middle of a terrorist attack! While trying to escape to safety, the group of friends are captured by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), bound and blindfolded with handcuffs and tightly cinched sacks, and transported to a covert prison. Here, they are held captive for days and are interrogated incessantly. Marcus's refusal to give the DHS interrogators his passwords and other highly personal information causes him to be the recipient of verbal abuse and ruthless torture.

Before Marcus is released, he is threatened by the DHS to keep what has happened in the prison a secret or face the death penalty for the crime of treason. After he is taken back to San Francisco, Marcus discovers that not only is his best friend, Darryl, still missing, but also that his home has transformed into a police state- Congress passed a bill to monitor all credit/debit card use at all times; the police can monitor everyone's "public transit usage pattern;" the DHS has installed surveillance technology in practically every nook and cranny of the city; and people who talk about free speech, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights run the risk of immediate removal, all in the name of "general public safety." In the eyes of the DHS, each man, woman, and child is a potential terrorist. Knowing that telling his parents about what really happened the day that the Bay Bridge was bombed, Marcus decides to gather a large and trusted group of jammers on Xnet to fight back against the injustices imposed on them by the DHS. It is at a secret meeting of Xnetters that Marcus meets Ange, a unique, rebellious teen who serves as Marcus's support, inspiration, and love interest. Even with Ange at his side, the underground battle with the DHS becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous. Marcus faces even more trouble when he crosses the new Social Studies teacher, explaining that Constitutional rights should never be superseded by the government. "The Bill of Rights isn't supposed to be something you pick and choose from. What the framers hated was tyranny. That's what the Bill of Rights is supposed to prevent," he argues (208).

Throughout the novel, Marcus is faced with exceptionally tough choices. The main problem, of course, is how to fight back against an unfair government without being caught. But this isn't the only obstacle Marcus must overcome. He recieves pressure from Ange and other characters to "do the right thing," but what exactly is the right thing? Should he continue his protest and risk the safety of the other Xnetters? Should he reveal himself and risk returning to the horrible DHS prison, or worse? Are there any other options? If he and Ange run away, will they ever truly be free again? Even when everything seems to be falling apart, Marcus stands strong and makes his decision clear: "You can't get anything done by doing nothing. It's our country. They've [the DHS] taken it from us. The terrorists who attack us are still free--but we're not. I can't go underground for a year, ten years, my whole life, waiting for freedom to be handed to me. Freedom is something you have to take for yourself" (334).

Recommendations for Teachers
Little Brother would be a great book to teach for a number of reasons. One being that the novel allows students to make very clear connections between the literary world and the real world. Little Brother is a very topical story that deals with many of the questions people are asking today, such as "When does security become an invasion of privacy?" or "Has the world changed so much in light of terrorist attacks that personal freedom is a thing of the past?" There could be some interesting class discussion connecting the story with current events, which would help students think beyond the world of the story.

Not only does Little Brother connect with current events, it also ties-in with other subjects students may be studying. This is especially true of history, social studies, and technology courses. What students read about programming in Little Brother may be carried over into their technology class, where they actually write a program. Or perhaps one could connect with the students' history teacher and ask that the students discuss protest movements in America while reading Little Brother. The novel also connects with topics in a government class. A discussion on the Bill of Rights and its history in a government class could enhance a student's reading of Little Brother. Even if coordination between departments is not possible, Little Brother can be used as a way to show the interconnected nature of multiple disciplines and how studying one subject can enhance the understanding of another.

Another interesting way to use Little Brother is in connection with a book such as 1984 by George Orwell. The students could read Little Brother and discuss the ideas of a government going to far before they read 1984. This could give students a better understanding of the message and significance of 1984 by first making those themes more accessible through a teen-lit novel. There could also be some interesting discussion on the differences between the two novels. For instance, one could ask what effect the time setting has on the story. 1984 is set in the relatively distant future, while Little Brother is set in the very near future. Does this have any effect on how the story is received (i.e. does it feel more urgent or more like science fiction). This is just one example of a number of connections that could be made between the texts in order to enhance students' understanding of each.

However, there would be some challenges to teaching this novel should one decide to adopt it into the curriculum. There are some potentially offensive scenes that have the main character either talking about or taking part in sex, drug usage, and alcoholic consumption. One might also run into problems with parents of the school board due to the nature of the book. The whole novel deals with civil disobedience and undermining the government when one feels it is not governing properly. These are some pretty involved topics that become even more difficult to discuss when the topic of modern terrorism is brought up. Some students and parents may feel that the security measures taken by the real DHS are vital to our safety, even if they invade some personal freedoms. For people with that opinion, Little Brother may be hard to accept and possibly offensive. Cory Doctorow does not hide his opinions in Little Brother, and at times those opinions can be considered rather liberal. Due to this one might want to send a letter to parents explaining the book and why it is being taught and asking for the parents' permission before teaching the novel. It would also be helpful to run it past the school board before teaching as well.

One aspect of Little Brother which can either help or hinder its teaching is the abundant use and discussion of technology. The story is about young adults outsmarting the DHS on a technological level, so it is natural that there would need to be some pretty high level computer usage in the novel. On the one hand this could be a great opportunity for extending student interest beyond the book. Some students may read the passages about programming or running a Linux-based OS and want to go explore these areas of technology. However, some students may start hearing terms such as Linux, encrypted, wifinder, etc. and be immediately turned-off. While Cory Doctorow does do an excellent job of breaking down the really complex techno-babble into understandable terms, some students may be completely uninterested in all things technology and not even try to understand what Doctorow is explaining. In order not to lose students such as this, it may be helpful to focus on the big ideas of the novel. A teacher could explain that ultimately it is not crucial for the reader to understand how the illegal Xnet works or how videos are being sent piggy-backed on different files; what is really important are the ideas of personal freedom, civil disobedience, and the role of government.

Overall this could be a very valuable book to teach. But due to some potentially offensive material and loaded subject matter, it would have to be a closely guided and discussed reading. This may call for more work on the part of the teacher, but it will definitely be worth the effort.

About the Author

Cory Doctorow was born in Toronto, Canada on July 17, 1971, and has spent time in California, Mexico, and Costa Rica. He currently resides in London. Along with writing science fiction novels such as Little Brother, Cory is involved in many things involving writing, technology, and activism. As he says on his official blog, "I do a bunch of things: I’m an activist, a writer, a blogger, a public speaker, and a technology person."

Cory Doctorow has published four science fiction novels and a short story collection (listed below). He also writes for magazines like Wired, MAKE, and Popular Science as well as freelancing for various publications and websites. Cory co-authored a non-fiction book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction.

As far as blogging, Cory is the co-editor of BoingBoing, a blog on technology, culture, and politics.

Along with being an avid activist for liberalizing copyright laws, Cory is involved with organizations such as Open Rights Group, MetaBrainz Foundation, Technorati Inc., Onion Networks, and Participatory Culture Foundation.

Fiction Works
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003)
A Place So Foreign and Eight More (short story collection, 2003)
Eastern Standard Tribe (2004)
Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (2005)
Little Brother (2007)


Additional Resources - Cory Doctorow's official website.
BoingBoing- A website that Cory Doctorow writes for.
"Giving it Away" - An article written for Forbes by Cory Doctorow on free, digital texts.
Department of Homeland Security - The official government website of the DHS (possibly for an interesting comparison of the DHS in the book and the real DHS...)
Linux- The website about the operating system which is used and heavily discussed in the novel.
ARGs A great site about Alternate Reality Games. Unfortunately, Harajuku Fun Madness is nowhere to be found...
1984 by George Orwell An entry on the novel from Online that includes a chapter by chapter summary for comparison.
Statement of Brandon Mayfield to Congress Urging Against Changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act From a real victim of The Patriot Act.
ALCU 's site for Patriot Act reform.
How To Become a Hacker Lots of info on Hacker culture. Go start your own Xnet. I'll wait here.
Airport Body Scanners!? From Security Info Watch. Save us M1k3y!
A real arphid (RFID) hack. A news story from Ars Technica.
Cryptome- An archive of secret information gained by Freedom of Information Act requests (Cory Doctorow actually used this cite as a resource for Little Brother).
Cory Doctorow- An interview with Doctorow, conducted by Tasha Robinson, about the writing process of Little Brother, technology, and more!
An Interview with Cory Doctorow- An interview conducted by Richard Koman about Doctorow's career as a sci-fi author.


On his website Cory Doctorow says, "Giving away ebooks gives me artistic, moral and commercial satisfaction."
Download: Little Brother
Plain text file
HTML file
PDF file
In Little Brother Marcus says, "For an Indie artist the big problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity: no one even cares about your tunes enough to steal 'em, (p. 116). Doctorow makes it clear on his website that he feels the same way about Science Fiction writers.

In the documentary Road to Guantanamo three British citizens are picked up by U.S. forces amongst a mass of confusion in Afghanistan. Their experiences are very much like those of Marcus, Van and Jolu when their taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security. Watch a preview for Road to Guantanamo below, and if you're interested rent the movie.

Below is a video from Authors@Google in which Cory speaks (be warned, it's kind of long)

A video of Cory reading from Little Brother in New York

Here's an interview Doctorow did with Podcrash podcast.
Link, MP3 Link


Read the full text of George Orwell's novel 1984 below.
Nineteen eighty-four (1949) HTML -- Text -- ZIP

Below watch the screen adaptation of 1984.


Click below to read about the history of waterboarding and its role in the world today.

//Waterboarding//: A Tortured History : NPR

--Reviewed By:
Daniel Pollert
Mark Beckwith
Kristyn M. Konal
Lonnie Spangler