Study Guide

Little Brother

by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother Summary

Introduction

Both frightening and light-hearted, Cory Doctorow's 2008 novel Little Brother hearkens back to George Orwell's 1984. The main character is seventeen-year-old Marcus Yallow. Doctorow creates a world for Marcus and his friends that blends current technology with believable futuristic gadgetry in a San Fransisco in the near future.

After convincing his friend Darryl to skip school, Marcus and Darryl meet up with Vanessa (Van) and Jose Luis (Jolu) to continue their Internet-based scavenger hunt game Harajuku Fun Madness. As they are looking for their next clue, terrorists attack the Bay Bridge and the BART. Amid the confusion, Darryl is stabbed and all four friends are taken by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

After three days of interrogation by Carrie Johnstone (whom Marcus calls Severe Haircut Woman), Marcus, Van, and Jolu are released. They are forced to sign documents saying they were willingly held and questioned. Dazed by his humiliating ordeal and psychological torture, Marcus goes home, makes up an excuse as to where he's been and withdraws to his world of technology and paranoia.

The fact that Darryl is still missing is the main motivator for Marcus to fight back against the DHS. Using encrypted wi-fi connections, his XBox and his techno-knowledge, he creates an underground network of teenagers and twenty-somethings to fight against the DHS and the police state San Fransisco has become.

Amid his plotting, Marcus engages in several arguments with his father about whether the DHS is violating the freedoms of the American people. Marcus also meets another techno-geek, Angela (Ange), who becomes his co-conspirator and love interest.

This book discusses many questions raised in the post-9/11 world: can and should we sacrifice freedom for security? How much is too much to keep our country safe? Written during the Bush administration, Doctorow treats these subjects delicately, but provides enough material to promote discussion. He also deftly combines modern and futuristic elements, contemporary teenage issues, and connections to past events, namely the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Some reviewers claim the book is bogged down with technological explanations; while true, it is not possible to say how Doctorow could have written this book without explaining the technology Marcus and his friends use.

Little Brother Synopsis

Little Brother, published by Tor Teen in 2008, is a novel by Cory Doctorow. The novel plays off the term “Big Brother” referring to the oppressive oversight of the government in George Orwell’s novel 1984.

In Little Brother, the story focuses on the subject of the Department of Homeland Security following a fictionalized attack in San Francisco. Marcus Yallow is the main character (also known as w1n5t0n). He and three of his friends skip school to play an online game that prompts a treasure hunt. While they are out in the city, terrorists attack the Bay Bridge. During the panic and confusion, one of Marcus’s friends is stabbed. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) picks the other boys up, holds them in a detainment facility, and tortures them for information tied to the attack.

All but one of them (Darryl) is released and they are never to discuss what happened inside the facility. DHS is watching them. Marcus cannot let forget the humiliation he experienced in interrogation. True to his nature, even before the attack, Marcus sets out to challenge authority. He is a rebel at heart.

Marcus uses his knowledge and talents with technology to fight the “little brother” that is the DHS post-terror attack. He uses Xbox game consoles and develops a subterranean version of the Internet by accessing various wireless connections. He also directs other kids to disrupt radio frequencies. Marcus becomes a figurehead in the youthful and counter-cultural fight for individual privacy and civil rights.

At one point in the drama, the authorities attack people at a free concert using pepper gas. The media recasts the story as a group of conspirators gathered to overcome the system. Marcus also learns that his friend Darryl is alive and Marcus changes his course from a secret system of sending messages to a public system.

Cory Doctorow provides an entertaining and informative read. His presentation of information technology, privacy, security, and the way they combine to create paranoia is stirring. The pacing of the novel is offset by the descriptions of different technologies. Some critics have noted that this disrupts the plot. Most critics agree that Little Brother is a scary, realistic, futuristic novel that reminds readers of our responsibilities to basic freedoms.