Doctorow’s Little Brother clearly demonstrates many of the features of cyberpunk even as it explores its utopian impulses, including basic of young adult fiction—school, romance, and rebellion. In addition, the novel introduces a deeply political comment that reflects upon the contemporary society.
Marcus the Punk
The narrator of Little Brother is 17-year-old Marcus Yallow, who lives in San Francisco, where he attends a high school that provides a laptop for each student—a laptop that monitors and reports on each student’s internet activities, automatically locking down activities that are processed as inappropriate or subversive and just as routinely tracking students who bring laptops home.
Marcus is a serious computer geek who regularly finds holes in his high school’s surveillance programs and passes out patches to his classmates for free. In typical young adult fashion, the novel begins with Marcus getting called to the vice principal’s office. But Marcus is not cowed by his 6’7”, former basketball-player vice principal.
When Mr. Benson accuses him, quite rightly, of subverting the school’s security system, Marcus goes on the offensive:
I think you should call the police and turn your evidence over to them. It sounds like this is a very serious matter, and I wouldn’t want to stand in the way of a proper investigation by the duly constituted authorities. You want me to call the police. And my parents, I think. That would be for the best.
Marcus definitely fits the definition of a punk, smart, sassy, and deeply committed to irony.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The setting of the novel also evokes cyberpunk, since the physical and cyberworlds bleed into each other in two very different ways. First, Marcus is a serious gamer and he and his closest friends—also very serious computer users—regularly play Harajuku Fun Madness, a video game that involves a real-world scavenger hunt around San Francisco. Unfortunately, physical and cyberworlds meld in a more troubling way when it comes to surveillance.
It’s one thing for Marcus’s high school to use electronic surveillance to monitor his real-world activities—not acceptable to Marcus, but not the end of the world either. But it’s a different story when the Department of Homeland Security uses advanced data mining techniques by analyzing public transit payments and credit card activity to find outliers to normal behavior. Because the DHS brings its cyber analysis into the real world by considering outliers as potential terrorists and treating them as such.
Learn more about young adult dystopia.
Crime and Punishment
Marcus undergoes a common trauma for a cyberpunk, he is entirely separated from the cyberworld, and being left with only his own mind and body gives him new perspectives on exactly who he is.
In Marcus’s case, he is captured by the Department of Homeland Security as a potential terrorist and is sent to prison not far from San Francisco, where he is stripped of his many electronics, confined, and eventually tortured.
Through this horrifying experience, which he can’t talk about under threat of further punishment, Marcus learns that his capacity for resistance lies in his computer skills. In fact, he comes to believe that in his world—really, our world—cyberspace holds the potential for utopian change—for freedom from what amounts to a totalitarian government that uses the rhetoric of security in order to oppress its citizens.
A Political Novel
Doctorow’s novel is perhaps one of the most political of utopian and dystopian texts, even including George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which Doctorow is obviously referencing here, not only with his title, making the cyberpunk Little Brother an enemy of Orwell’s Big Brother, but also with Marcus’s screenname, w1n5t0n, which looks like Winston as in Winston Smith.
And Doctorow doesn’t set his novel even a few decades into the future, as Orwell did. Little Brother is basically set in the present day. And Doctorow doesn’t just provide a cautionary tale whose clear inference is that we should make some changes in order to avoid catastrophe and/or dystopian governmental structures.
Marcus, who is a first-person narrator, frequently interrupts the narrative to explain how a specific coding concept works. He then gives a specific—and a very well-researched—hacking advice.
In fact, the novel comes with two “Afterwords”, the first is written by Bruce Schneier, a security technologist who tells the readers: “Security is fun. It’s incredibly fun. It’s cat and mouse, who can outsmart whom, hunter versus hunted fun. I think it’s the most fun job you can possibly have.”
The second is by Andrew “bunnie” Huang, an Xbox Hacker who opens with this definition, “Hackers are explorers, digital pioneers.” Doctorow also provides a bibliography with more information on hacking and hactivism. And in keeping with his belief in information transparency, what Doctorow and others call copyleft as opposed to copyright, Doctorow, although he publishes with a major label, Tor, also makes all his novels available online for free.
Learn about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Cyborgs and Dystopia
Little Brother is a cyborg narrative in its slipperiness, its generic hybridity. On one hand, Marcus lives in a dystopia—or at least a society with strong dystopian elements—and the novel examines the dark potential of information technology to support what is basically a totalitarian government. Like other Young Adult, and especially cyberpunk, novels, the dystopia is disrupted by a teenaged protagonist who outsmarts the system and reveals its flaws to the citizens who range from resigned to reasonably content in their repressive society.
But Doctorow goes further than most, and this novel’s success may well promote imitators. By providing not only a narrative that moves toward a better society but also gives concrete information that readers can use to achieve more information transparency, Doctorow’s novel also includes elements of utopia as a genre, as a vision, and also as a formula for a better life.
Common Questions about Doctorow’s Little Brother and Cyberpunk Utopia
The narrator of Little Brother is 17-year-old Marcus Yallow, a serious computer geek who regularly finds holes in his high school’s surveillance programs and passes out patches to his classmates for free.
The setting of Little Brother also evokes cyberpunk, since the physical and cyberworlds bleed into each other in two very different ways. Marcus is a serious gamer and he and his closest friends regularly play a video game that involves a real-world scavenger hunt around San Francisco.
In Little Brother, Marcus Yallow is captured by the Department of Homeland Security as a potential terrorist and is sent to prison not far from San Francisco, where he is stripped of his many electronics, confined, and eventually tortured.