Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, Little Brother, is technically a young adult novel, but there is something in there for anyone interested in cyberlaw, security, national security law, and oh yeah, a rather fun, although at times scary, tale. In classic Cory fashion, he has made the book available for free (yes well before law profs such as Benkler and Zittrain did so, Cory has been a leader in the world of I-make-money-by-giving-away-my-creations). He also allows people to remix and share the new work. The downloads and remixes are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license. Now that is a business model of the new economy. For those wondering whether this approach works, it does for Cory if making the New York Times Kids Bestseller list matters. (Scoff at your own risk. Remember kids are a tremendous market). So on to the book.
Some tech/sci-fi writers give up story for ideas. They offer great fun and build excellent worlds, but when it comes to ending the story, they fall short. (I am thinking of early Stephenson here) Little Brother, however, delivers both ideas and story. That is great because one can dive in and enjoy the characters as they navigate the modern day 1984 world of the United States.
Despite, or perhaps because, the characters and the story draw one in, the details of this world are not all fun and games. Hacking, government power, security, racism, freedom, and more swirl around as decent teens trying to have a life, trying to grow and express themselves, and trying to make mischief, crash into a new world. Anyone who remembers useful acts of rebellion and the learning that goes with them should be able to identify with these kids. The beauty of having kids as main characters is that kids often have parents. Doctorow uses the parents quite well. They express the natural desire for stability and the way that once freedom-loving individuals can easily change as they age and see the world through a lens of how-do-I-protect-my-family? Whether they will protect their kids and what the protection will look like was a subtle but important theme which Doctorow navigates well. Perhaps thoughts of becoming a father fueled this sensitivity; perhaps not. Either way it works.
Some of the text tantalizes with ways for individuals to keep their communications free, secret, and/or anonymous as context requires. Exploring those issues allows Doctorow to investigate how trust of other individuals, businesses, and the government work together to create the world we enjoy or what happens if that trust fails. Cory is not shy. He does not stop there. The relationship between federal and state government, the role of the press, and how individuals can or cannot impact the system are all in play as well.
I will stop here as I do not want to give away the details. There is more to discuss, but I also hate spoilers. So here is a possible solution. For those wishing to see Cory’s take on his book check out his post on John Scalzi’s Big Idea series. In addition, Cory is quite busy, but we hope to do a phone interview this summer. That way the law issues can be addressed and those who wish to avoid spoilers can. No promises but if he and I can connect, it should be fun.
Last, you may wonder whether I’d say buy the book given that it can be downloaded for free. Well yes I would say buy it as it keeps Cory funded. Yet, what if you decide to download it? Should you donate to Cory? No. In fact he would prefer you buy a copy for you or someone you love as it works better for his publisher and him. Or ever the innovative person, Cory has another idea you may wish to pursue: a donation program for the book. In short, Cory and his assistant have assembled a list of libraries and schools that want the book. He suggests that people who downloaded the book and want to give him money, find a library or school, buy the book online, and ship it to the school. Everybody wins: the public, the publisher, and Cory (who will receive royalties). Cory sent me the file before he put it online so I could review it. Still, I plan on following his suggestion and donating a book.