Monday, January 30, 2012

Notes on Cory Doctorow's Little Brother

Edit: I wrote this a couple years ago. The differences between the Occupy San Francisco movement and the Occupy Oakland movement - which saw 400+ people arrested in Oakland this weekend, and demonstrate the willingness of minorities to resist authority relative to their well-heeled white counterparts in San Fran, has encouraged me to post it, again, with minor edits. So, here we go:

On recommendation - and with the caveat I might not like it - I read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. I initially walked down the library to get it, but thanks to budget cuts the library is now closed on Fridays. Then I got to walk home in the rain. But, hey, it's California rain, right? I can't bitch too much.

Spoilers follow.

I'd never read fiction by Doctorow before this. At some point, several years back, I read something he wrote, or was written about him, about alternate distribution channels. I think the upshot was that online self-publishing was going to level the playing field and allow works to be selected primarily by talent. I didn't buy it, then, and I don't buy it now. While talent will be one component of success (such as it is now) there'll be a lot more important things . . . like having invented Boing Boing and having an existing audience of fans. I bet that helps. So, what he saw (or how I interpreted it) was that somehow online would make things fair. I just saw it as further externalization of labor to unpublished writers; now, instead of writing a good book and having to go through the various hoops to get it published you'd have to become an Internet marketeer or something. Maybe I got it wrong - this was several years ago and I didn't do anything like research on the article - but it was enough to incline me away from reading his books. I can be pretty ruthless about the subject. There are plenty of good writers in the world. If I have any reason at all to move on to another writer, I do. It's not like the world is going to run out of good books before I die, right?

Well, I won't be reading anything else by him absent a miracle (or, y'know, at least a strongly worded recommendation from someone I trust). Because I found this book abysmal.

The book is written in the first person and while I briefly found the narrator interesting, he swiftly got on my nerves as a deeply shallow middle class white boy of excessive privilege, a spoiled rotten consumerist brat whom I swiftly came to loathe. Worse, the book pretends to be deep but is actually an inflatable kiddie pool.

I read somewhere when Alan Moore was complaining about the movie V for Vendetta that one of the things he didn't like about the movie is that it created a false conundrum, the choice between democracy and fascism. And that was silly because there's no real comparison. Whereas the comic was about anarchy and fascism, an altogether difference choice.

Little Brother is about a white middle class young man who, after a 911-style bombing in San Francisco, is accidentally picked up by Homeland Security. For five days he's interrogated, somewhat roughly, because he's a crypto kid and tosses some attitude their way when they order him to give up his passwords. After some abusive treatment - like denying him food for a day and letting him soil himself - he breaks, gives them the passwords. After he's released, he decided to overthrow the system.

The future he sets up is a surveillance state after the second terrorist attack. This is the system that the hero of the story fights against, except he's not really fighting against it, just the narrow parts of it that directly effect him and other affluent people. The social impact beyond affluent white people are simply never brought up.

It reminds me of that interview with Moore about how he didn't like the movie because it created this weird false conundrum. Between democracy and fascism, there is no choice. Between a deeply intrusive security state and lack of the same deeply intrusive security state, there is also no choice. That is not, however, what we've got. Perhaps Doctorow really thinks that's where we're going, or maybe it's just a fear of his. However, while the kid, before his incarceration, rebelled against the "security" around him and thwarted it as much as he could reasonably do, he and his friends weren't too concerned about the broader social implications of the already present security state. Y'know. Gitmo and extraordinary rendition, illegal combatants, waterboarding and the like. The book was released in 2008, meaning it was written most likely in 2007 or 2006. It isn't about current security practices and their abuses, but about some fictionalized version of them where the paranoia has grown so great that even middle class Frisco kids are caught up in it. THEN it becomes a problem.

Which, as a kid raised in a trailer park, raised all kinds of alarms. First, I don't believe that white middle class Frisco kids and their rich parents would factually be inconvenienced for very long. Think security lines at airports. How long did fast track passes take to be invented so if you had enough loot you could breeze through security?

But it's the second one that really put me on a slow burn. Across the bay from San Francisco is Oakland. You don't have to imagine a world where there's another 911 to see a place where a crazy security state is in place. There are neighborhoods in Oakland where 1 in 3 adult men have been in prison, and at any given time 1 in 10 of them are in the hands of law enforcement. Black people spend eight times as much time in prison compared to white people. It's actually worse for Indians, but I'm talking Oakland because Oakland is right across the bay from San Francisco and about the same population. Oakland is definitely the elephant in the room because this book takes place in San Francisco.

So, worse conditions than described in the book actually exist, just across the bay. And the book's complete failure to mention the persistent social conditions in Oakland, much less have it dawn on the hero of the novel that maybe those oppressed Oakland people might have something to tell him about the nature of the revolution he's planning or at least the nature of the system he's fighting. I mean, it isn't like there have been any revolutionaries in Oakland ever before, right? That could never happen in Oakland!

Of course, at the end of the book it's safe to be a white male middle class kid in San Francisco, again. Since at no point did anyone get down to Oakland, or the social conditions that previously existed in Oakland were mentioned, I'm gonna guess they're still fucked. (It was very briefly mentioned that non-white people might see things differently. A non-white person gives up on the quest because of fear. Which, fuck, is goddamn racist. While white kids like the protagonist were living safe in their affluent Frisco housing, Hispanic Californians have been, year after year, decade after decade, putting their asses on the line to make the world a better place. But it's the Mexican who gives up because it's dangerous! HOLY SHIT. Again, y'know, it's the brave white affluent kids that change the world. Ugh.) (The woman of the initial group also is too gutless to take a stand. She has family in North Korea so she knows how bad tyranny can get - and rather than this being a driving force encouraging her to fight to stop it from happening in America, y'know, I guess she's a girl, an Asian girl at that, she chickens out. Ugh. So toss some sexism into the pile – girls can't be revolutionaries, I guess.)

The message I took away from the book: When the revolution comes, it's going to be run by rich male white kids from affluent backgrounds to free themselves from tyranny. If that sentence makes no sense to you, well, it doesn't many sense to me, either. I think that it might make sense to rich male white people from affluent communities that have absolutely no fucking clue whatsoever what's going on outside their comfortable affluent environments and have tricked themselves into believing that they're somehow a persecuted class, or even a class that could be persecuted. That happens all time, y'know, how up becomes down and rich white men believe they're really the persecuted ones, but it's stupid.

Which is really offensive. The US has real problems. We imprison more people than communist China. Not more per capita but more period. You don't have to create another terrorist attack to imagine an America that engages in massive surveillance of its citizens and arrests them on arbitrary and idiotic charges and imprisons them for irrational, illogical periods of time in a mockery of justice. You just have to go to Oakland. But rather than do that, Doctorow creates a scenario which is substantially better than the actual situation for many Americans and has a rich male white middle class kid take this fake ass stand to return to a fucked up status quo that the character, and author, seem ignorant about. It comes off as coopting revolutionary consciousness to support the status quo to me.

Something else I found offensive, too, y'know, going along with how the book is about saving affluent white kids to throw raves and equally deep things is the idea that the worst thing that will happen is increased surveillance in the case of escalation of terrorism in the US (there is a brief period at the beginning and very end of the book about real issues like illegal detention and torture – but most of the book is entirely free of this consciousness; even the narrator admits it). I mean, OK, that's what the book is about and it's a real problem, I dig that. But if there was another 911 style attack by al Qaida (as is in the case in this book), one of the real effects would be a dramatic increase in military activity in the Middle East. As in "carpet bombing". But also in the sense that it is almost certain a draft would be instituted. We're already stretched thin. The draft is already be bruited about. Any serious expansion of militarism would demand it. But the book's analysis of a terrorist inspired future stops at the inconvenience to well off kids in Frisco. So while I understand that the book is reasonably limited in scope, that all writers have got to choose what they're writing about, the analysis as presented in the book is so deeply limited I'm finding it downright narcissistic. Things outside the extremely limited initial perceptions are simply left unexplored, unmentioned.

(A friend of mine also mentioned that if the Oakland Bay Bridge was destroyed that San Francisco would be a ghost town. There would be vast and immediate consequences to the city beyond the feds throwing up roadblocks and checkpoints. But he lives in Oakland so what would he know, right?)

Also, in the online version of the book, each chapter has an advertisement. It really, really, really undermines your "stick it to the Man" gig when you shill Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Borders in your book. It'd be like Rage Against the Machine ending a set with "drink Diet Pepsi!" A serious part of the problems with America - as opposed to the weak ass "problems" that afflict the middle class kids in this book - are these huge corporations and the undue influence they have over people and the government. They're part of the security state that Doctorow fears! Right now, many of the people he shills for are actively working to bring about the security state that the book ostensibly rails against! Argh! Every actual violation of a person's online privacy rights has been totally engineered by big corporations, sometimes the exactly corporations he shills for, such as Amazon! AAAARGH. It makes my brain hurt.

(Indeed, the book is a catalog of product placement. Innumerably the snooty goods the characters bought or used were named, complete consumerist crap, so it's mentioned that the jeans are from the Gap, and the whiskey is Bushmill's single blend and that the Oreo clones were from Whole Foods. It made me think of American Psycho, except that was a parody of consumerism and a fine book. It makes me think of the insanity after 911 when Bush told Americans to go shop or the terrorists would have won. I mean, shit, I know this book is vapid, that it's basically about the rights of middle class white kids to do whatever they want without responsibility. But the extent that includes shopping is ugly to me. I find the book's obsession with crass materialism an indictment against it, especially as it coopts revolutionary concepts. Fightin' for the right to shop. Ugh. I normally hesitate to call a writer a whore, but the shoe fits and it's a six inch stiletto pump.)

The terrible things in the novel are stopped by appeals to a journalist, which is as tired a cliche as I can currently imagine. I didn't realize that were people who still thought that the press mattered. C'mon, guys, face it: Watergate was a fluke and thirty years ago. It's past time to move on from the fiction that Watergate was anything other than a fluke, even in a fiction. I have some trouble believing that there are people who still believe in the power of the press after so many years of lies and omissions. They didn't go after Bush who was a bigger crook than Nixon. They did go after Clinton . . . for all the wrong reasons. The press is impotent except where it is a tool. When a small press tells the truth about something, no matter how real, no matter how demonstrable, no matter how true, the press crushes them and it's been decades since the straight press has even tried to say something difficult and controversial. But, y'know, in this universe a single story is enough to literally cause Homeland Security to be dismantled in California by order of the governor (which is also deeply stupid – the US government would not allow that to happen even if the governor ordered it, which also would not happen). The stupid, it burns!

This might be the worst book I've actually finished (I finished it only because it was actual research, if it had been for pleasure I would have stopped about a quarter of the way through but I decided to tough it out to the end because it was, y'know, research). I found it deeply classist and somewhat racist and sexist, and also intensely shallow while pretending to be deep. I was constantly aware of the contradiction between supposedly fighting the system while shilling for it at the same time. So, I actually found this a much more difficult book to read than Twilight because at every turn I was offended. The writing isn't even any better. The narrator is a shallow spoiled little punk who oozed privilege out of every pore of his body. Twilight was offensive in just a couple of ways. Little Brother is offensive down the line (and, frankly, about things more personal to me; while I recognize the sexism in Twilight I am not a woman so I don't feel it as acutely as many women do).

I will end with this. The revolution will not be televised. It will also not be webcast. It will also be a revolution. The ghost of Emma Goldman is lined up to smack Doctorow in the mouth. George Orwell's ghost is next in line.

Except this isn't the end, hehe. I read the book online, so I was able to jot down many of my thoughts as I was having them. I present them below. If you just wanted a review of the book, you can stop here. There was no elegant way to put them into the review above - or at least not an elegant way I could be bothered to do - but they might illustrate addition things I didn't like about the book. In case I wasn't clear above, I didn't like it at all.

There were other . . . flaws in the book. It comes off, to me, as a lot of wishful thinking. There are places where Doctorow literally believes that people met at raves and LARPs are worth trusting with the revolution. I think only a person who exists in a context where they have never been legitimately oppressed can think this, because both organized crime and revolutionary cells work differently. The whole "ring of trust" noise works well for rich white kids who think that they need to be protected from the law enforcement but the truth is that law enforcement doesn't much care about the doings of most rich white kids (compare the drug arrests for, say, possession to get an example of the disparity). They're not spending a lot of resources in that direction. They're far more interested in busting the clocker in Oakland than keeping tabs on rich kids in San Francisco . . . because they the youthful indiscretions of those kids are just youthful indiscretions. All of them - not even, really, almost all of them, but approaching 100% - will become, after their youthful wild oats period, the sturdiest defenders of the status quo.

Perhaps this is a revelation! Orwell was wrong. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, he posited that Big Brother would watch the top 15% or so of the population, the people with some status and wealth. What we see is actually the inversion of that. The wealthy can be trusted to indoctrinate themselves. They're the winners in the class wars, right? How common is it for a person born into affluence to say to themselves, "Well, it's just chance that I was born here, and I don't deserve it, and I'll give it all away as soon as possible." What they tend to say is quite a bit closer to, "My parents worked hard for this, and it's far that we live in a society where wealth is heritable, and in the end I deserve the wealth and privileges I have because it's fair for them to be heritable. Indeed, the fairest society is one where wealth is infinitely transferable, without any pesky taxes or other considerations at all." Or, in other words, give someone a million bucks and they WILL find a way to justify why they deserve it, in large. So, you don't need to pay too much attention to what the affluent do. They train themselves. The people you've got to watch out for are the bottom dwellers, the proletariat, the workers, working poor, whatever you want to call them. These are the guys you've got to watch constantly, drag into court and imprison as often as possible (and when that doesn't work, murdering their leaders is a pretty good option).

So, in my thinking, when you get all your middle class affluent raver friends together to create a "ring of trust" what you're doing is false applying the logic of a pre-oppressed group to an oppressed group. The FBI will get up inside that shit in about twenty minutes, break someone down who'll give them everything, and the only reason that it doesn't happen now is because not a lot of law enforcement is wasted with ravers. They're all down in Oakland arresting black people.


The pedantry really grated. The hero would make these, y'know, pronouncements. Some were clever, most were not and a few I found deeply stupid. It eventually just became an opportunity for Doctorow to try to sound intelligent. And, of course, he is intelligent, but when you have one character spouting platitudes to himself and no one actually even knowing what these platitudes were to say, "Dude, those are just fucking platitudes that have scant bearing to life as it is lived" it becomes tedious to me. It stops being a novel and becomes a poorly written essay because it's impossible to separate the author's intent from the voice of the characters.

So there's all this stuff I kinna want to say about privacy, secrecy and the the rest - but how do I know what Doctorow thinks and what the narrator of the novel falsely believes? I have no way of knowing. That frustrates me because the narrator of the novel is often a dithering idiot who clearly has no idea what the hell he's talking about and tosses out diswitticisms like they have meaning. But is that because the narrator is a dithering idiot or is Doctorow expressing beliefs through the agency of the narrator (perhaps poorly, being forced to speak in the in character voice)? I dunno. And because I don't know, I don't know how to treat the ideas in the book that I think are poorly stated and, I believe, false.


It also reminded me of the dot com boom. Y'know, when you had these economists saying that the "Internet changed things forever". So, you have all these hacker kids goin' after the government like . . . the Internet changed things forever. Like traditional tools of law enforcement simply don't exist much like there was this bizarre belief that the traditional tools of the economy were irrelevant.


A good part of the novel is also a virtual tour of San Francisco, which the narrator repeatedly tells us is awesome. It is reasonably so, yes. But I sometimes get a clenched feeling in San Francisco because it's so affluent. So it's nice but also like sandpaper on my skin if I stay there too long. I actually feel better walkin' 'round Oakland because its both more diverse and more lived in.

But my point here is that this terrible government oppression that the white male affluent protagonist is fighting against is nevertheless not so bad as to stop San Francisco from being awesome. Oh, sure, he can't play his ARG because of security, but, I mean, that's the level of the stand he's taking, here. One of his real gripes against the security state is . . . he can't play a computer game anymore. So sad.

Oh, sure, there are other reasons. Like one of his friends has vanished (and is irrelevant through most of the novel), and there are real curtailments to civil liberties - but these curtailments are things a whole bunch of other Americans have lived with for a long time. Worse things, too. But, again, to figure that out might require crossing the bay and there's no way that's going to happen. Unless Berkeley is involved. That'd be OK. The rest of the East Bay? Well, who cares what people in Oakland do.


Most offensive moment: the narrator decides he has to escape. He's contacted by another person who's been a fed snitch and also wants to get out, and she says that she has a safe house down in SoCal. He agrees to go with her but, okay, this is what he does to cover their escape - he gets around a 1000 people, on false pretenses, to act in such a way that insures that the government will crack down on them, leading to police assaults, gassings, hundreds of arrests and at least some of those people to prolonged incarceration and interrogation at a secret prison camp.

Furthermore, the safe house isn't guaranteed safe. He suspects the person who contacted him is a fed - indeed, admits to having been a fed. So, he has no confidence in this person and on those grounds, he still gets a 1000 people beaten, gassed, some arrested and a few no doubt for lengthy incarceration and interrogation.

How can one parse this as anything other than cowardly and stupid? Cowardly because he considers his own personal safety - no, not even his own personal safety, a fairly shaky chance at personal safety - more important than the wellbeing of the people he duped into screening his escape. And stupid because, y'know, if he wanted to leave town he could have just gathered his things, including his girlfriend, and just left the old fashioned way. Y'know. Hitchhiking or on a bus or whatever. Which would have been safer and more honest.

It's offensive because it's so deeply stupid and deeply immoral. Which is never, in itself, a problem. People do stupid, immoral things all the time. But no one in novel catches on its stupidity and immorality. It's presented as if it was a good, reasonable plan instead of a stupid, immoral one.


Hippies. The book talks about hippies in a good way, about how the hippies changed the US for the better. While there's some truth to that, some other related and relevant things never get mentioned. Like how when hippies - middle class white kids - got involved in the civil rights movement it had already been going on since 1954 (or, if you prefer, been going on since a Spanish bishop came over in the 16th century to try to stop slavery from taking hold in the New World in the first place). After Rosa Parks and Montgomery and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a decade of civil rights demonstrations . . . in Little Brother, the hippies get the credit.

The book never uses the words "Martin Luther King, Jr." or "Malcolm X" or "Southern Christian Leadership Conference". But, y'know, we get hippies. They're the ones who did it. Really. So, again, color me insulted and color the book white. Black people need not apply.


Perhaps the thing I hate the most is the cooption of revolutionary consciousness. I mean, I know I'm not a revolutionary, not in the sense that I'm going to be going out and trying to fight to change the system. I've got a lot of social anxiety so I'd rather work at what I'm doing, y'know? Maybe that's cowardly of me, I dunno, I sometimes wonder about if a person's not out there on the lines, so to say, if they're not chicken. Maybe I've just convinced myself that I'm some sort of intellectual resister, like Sartre was in France (tho' with a much smaller following and impact, of course). But I feel like I'm a pretty radical guy. Even to most radicals I feel pretty radical.

What I see here, tho', what happens with some urban ad campaigns where something edgy is subverted to support the system. Y'know, like a hybrid SUV talking about how good for the environment it is, stuff like that. He uses all these edgy subculture stuff - like Emma Goldberg and Howl and On the Road - and subverts it to support whiny affluent white kids fighting the man so they can shop at the Gap.

Yeah, Emma wouldn't be part of any revolution where she couldn't dance. But this ain't a revolution. He's using Emma Goldberg to shill for Borders. He's using Ginsberg to help his product placement. I would say that you've got to admire the chutzpah, but I think I'm quite a bit past admiring shamelessness.


As a sort of the final slap in the face about the classism angle, near the climax of the book the narrator finds some kids that are part of the secret hacked network he'd set up. He needs to get online and they take him up to this multimillion dollar condo with a doorman and such. The kid he hooked up with was a trust fund baby.

Yeah. This is the resistance. Trust fund babies. It's the millionaire resistance.

OK, now I'm done. It's out, off my chest.

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