Saturday, September 12, 2009

"Little Brother" in a Big World

I just finished "Little Brother," Cory Doctorow's young-adult science fiction novel from last year; and I recommend it highly. It's strongly reminiscent of the Robert Heinlein juvenile novels of half-a-century ago: A propulsive plot centering on a young, smart, iconoclastic hero who is in a tough situation and has to think his way out of it. Actually, that's not quite true: The hero has the option of surviving by simply lying low and ignoring what's happening around him. But that wouldn't make a very interesting book; and it wouldn't convey Doctorow's message of doing something about the world.

The hero, 17-year-old Marcus Yallow, is a techno-fan who spends his time learning computer tech from the inside out and thwarting the oppressive surveillance systems at his San Francisco high school. Then, when the city is attacked by terrorists, Marcus and his friends are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and brutally interrogated, simply because they were out on the street during the incident. After his release, Marcus is deathly afraid that the DHS will pick him up again. But he also vows to take down the DHS for creating a police state of fear that is doing little to stop actual terrorists. And so, he becomes what some would call a monkey-wrencher, and others would call, well, a terrorist, as he wages a guerilla war against a repressive government.

Much like a Heinlein book, this novel wears its Electronic Frontier Federation philosophy on its sleeve -- a philosophy hammered home by the afterwords from a security expert and from a university-based hacker. The message is that to keep themselves free, young people need to question and try to break security systems, firewalls, and cyphers; and publish the results when they do so. The reasoning (made explicit several times) is that security systems that depend on secrets are weak. Only a security system whose weaknesses are probed and explored and remedied actually works. Doctorow draws his parallels to cryptography: cyphers that depend on keys being kept private are apparently far easier to break than ones where the underlying code is made public, so that thousands can come up with exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions.

Of course, the problem with this philosophy is that it works so long as people have good intentions. If they want to use hacking to get rich, or to mess up people's lives for fun, learning how to crack systems will only help them in their dark pursuits. Doctorow would likely respond that if good people know how to hack, they can stop the bad hackers. Perhaps, but the cynic in me draws parallels to mutual nuclear deterrence.

Any book that raises such questions, and is highly entertaining to boot, deserves to be read.

No comments: