Freesteel Blog » Cory Doctorow’s little bother with writing

Cory Doctorow’s little bother with writing

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009 at 11:32 am Written by:

Review written last year. Finally got round to posting it because he’s addressing Europython, which I am missing.

Cory Doctorow’s lack of a good title for his book Little Brother (thought up and written from start to finish in only 8 weeks) seems not to be a drag for any of his admirers, which is strange considering how he says that good titles on the posts are important to the success of his uber-blog BoingBoing.

The book’s subtitle, “How hacker kids declared war on the Department of Homeland Security”, is considerably better and gives something for his fans to think about. But, like the excellent title of his short story Scroogled, it’s a pale wash-out of its promised premise.

Cory Doctorow’s publishers brought forward the UK release of the novel Little Brother from from November to October, putting it ahead of the US election and the anticipated closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

This is relevant since the Guantanamo Bay one of the themes of the book, and it wouldn’t do for it to be over-taken by events — always the risk for near future SF where the author is not willing to apply any imagination and continues in a state of denial of the dire predictions for the future.

I could go on at length about all the important issues that Cory, with the acquesence of his publishers, left out of this book when they chose to waste a lot of young people’s valuable thought-space with this piece of sloppy ill-thought work, but time is short and there’s money to be made, and I’ve covered this theme in my earlier review of Doctorow’s newspaper columns.

Let’s look at what’s actually in the book.

From a distance, this story is a misguided first draft of a revisionist history of the War on Terror.

On the one hand, all-American white kids have had a small number of their civil liberties ineffectively breached in America regarding surveillance, while on the other hand far away in Pakistan, Iraq and Gaza people die nightly in bombing raids that are planned in America, paid for by American taxes and using American military robot airplanes remote controlled from a base in Nevada.

But Cory doesn’t acknowledge that integral half of the War on Terror at any point in his book. No way. This is about kids.

Remember how, back in the old days, the story was of kids hacking into the Pentagon computers? It doesn’t happen any more, does it? Why? Are Pentagon computers no longer interesting, now that we know that most of those cool state secrets do not exist and the only thing they’re trying to hide are yet more torture photographs from Abu Ghraib? That wouldn’t do. You wouldn’t want your fictional characters to be exposed to anything ugly like that, because then if they didn’t do anything about it (eg reprogrammed bomb targets out into the sea), that would mean they were bad people and that their life challenges were somewhat trivial and irrelevant. So let’s pretend it isn’t there.

Another facet side of the War on Terror is the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. This features in Cory Doctorow’s book, except the prisoners are instead white kids from America — like the main character, who identifies precisely with his target audience.

A recap: Back in 2002 the Guantanamo Bay inmates were swept up in the hundreds as part of a proxy invasion of Afghanistan. They were paraded around a military base in orange jumpsuits, branded as “the worst of the worst”, and kept unidentified for years to provide the politicians the space to lie about their made-up crimes. Their presumed guilt was one element in the raft of propaganda supporting the second rapid invasion in the middle east, this time for the oil which, in no small part, fuels Cory Doctorow’s crazy jet-set lifestyle that keeps him distracted from pondering what the oncoming future means for the next generation, and exercising his influence by publically setting an example.

In Chapter 2 of Little Bother a terrorist group detonates a series of ten charges along the length of the San Francisco Bay Bridge destroying it completely, while simultaneously blowing up the underground train tunnel beneath the bay with enough explosives to break through to sea bed and flood it with water! All in order to cause economic damage to the United States amounting to what will probably be less than a one percent of the damage caused by a proper San Francisco earthquake. In Chapter 9 of the book, we get the rest of the information:

Al Qaeda was definitely responsible for the bombing. Six different terrorist groups had claimed responsibility for the attack, but only Al Qaeda’s Internet video disclosed information that the DHS said they hadn’t disclosed to anyone.

And that’s it!

Friends, this is a work of fiction. Cory Doctorow is free to made up anything here, and make it connect to the plot. The utter carelessness with which he chose this signature event of the book tells you all you need to know about how much thought and interest he put into his research and creativity. This is worse than Hollywood blockbuster movie material.

For a start, what kind of childish imagination makes you think of the tunnel as some kind of thin-walled pipe snaking along the sea floor, rather than, as it is, bored many metres down in the bedrock that not even a freight train of TNT would be able to punch through? This is idiocy on the level of gas limos project.

Clearly, no terrorist group has ever or would ever (a) place ten separate bombs on one target when it could have a far greater effect spread out through the whole city, or (b) not leave trails of real evidence all over the place when doing something of this scale.

By choosing this fictional and wholly unrealistic terrorist action, Cory Doctorow helps to mythologize Al Qaeda terrorism in the West as being well-resourced enough not to require the biggest bang for their meagre bucks. After all don’t forget that 9/11 required no more than ten box cutters, some flying lessons paid for by the state of Georgia, plane tickets purchased with a credit card, and some willing volunteers.

Nor did he pick a terrorist act of the sort which would make it possible to spin his yarn through the neighbourhood of the perpetrators in order to illuminate their side of the story. There are lots of ways to do this that would have been hugely enriching to the novel. For inspiration of just how wacky these connections could be, consider the decision of the McCain/Palin ticket in the 2008 Presidential election to obsess over Bill Ayers the “domestic terrorist”. These are new dimensions that would have appeared in this book had it been written properly by an author who cared.

But we don’t get that richness from Cory Doctorow. He’s not interested. He’s not done a shred of homework nor put in any thought, either about terrorism, or about the about technical requirements for breaking things. He’s intelligent enough to know about the ridiculousness of the airlines removing the possibility of “moisture bombs” from passenger’s toiletries, and would probably laugh at the idea of a terrorist plot involving the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting through (how many?) cables with blow torches (assuming he even looked it up), but when it comes to his efforts in his own book, does he show any signs of being bothered to think it through?

But back to the story. In Chapter 3 the team of all-American white kids are picked off the street at random by the Department of Homeland Security and interrogated by idiots for a week for information about their involvement in the bombing of the bridge. They are detained in a secret prison on Treasure Island, which is clever because it’s where one of the main pillars of the Bay Bridge stands, now cut off by Al Qaeda’s act of demolition. According to Wikipedia it’s an artificial island made from spoil produced by drilling the tunnel through thick bedrock.

Why is the prison kept secret? Beats me. Guantanamo Bay was never secret; only the identities of the prisoners were secret in order to hide the lack of evidence against them. Generally, the police always like to announce to everyone in a big press conference that they’ve caught the bad guys. Though sometimes they later have to manufacture evidence and extract confessions to prove it. A bomb has gone off? “Round up twice the usual suspects,” said Captain Renault in Casablanca.

It’s time for another excerpt. Here’s a bit from the end of Chapter 3, which shows off his prize-winning writing:

“I think you should really reconsider your approach to this situation,” Severe Haircut woman said. “I think you should do that right now. We found a number of suspicious devices on your person. We found you and your confederates near the site of the worst terrorist attack this country has ever seen. Put those two facts together and things don’t look very good for you, Marcus. You can cooperate, or you can be very, very sorry. Now, what is this for?”

“You think I’m a terrorist? I’m seventeen years old!”

“Just the right age — Al Qaeda loves recruiting impressionable, idealistic kids. We googled you, you know. You’ve posted a lot of very ugly stuff on the public Internet.”

“I would like to speak to an attorney,” I said.

Severe haircut lady looked at me like I was a bug. “You’re under the mistaken impression that you’ve been picked up by the police for a crime. You need to get past that. You are being detained as a potential enemy combatant by the government of the United States. If I were you, I’d be thinking very hard about how to convince us that you are not an enemy combatant. Very hard. Because there are dark holes that enemy combatants can disappear into, very dark deep holes, holes where you can just vanish. Forever. Are you listening to me young man? I want you to unlock this phone and then decrypt the files in its memory. I want you to account for yourself: why were you out on the street? What do you know about the attack on this city?”

“I’m not going to unlock my phone for you,” I said, indignant. My phone’s memory had all kinds of private stuff on it: photos, emails, little hacks and mods I’d installed. “That’s private stuff.”

“What have you got to hide?”

“I’ve got the right to my privacy,” I said. “And I want to speak to an attorney.”

“This is your last chance, kid. Honest people don’t have anything to hide.”

After getting set free a week later, Marcus doesn’t tell his parents where he’s been.

He goes to his room, retrieves his copy of Paranoid Linux for the X-Box (intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents, but can be used to crack this loss-leading gaming machine), burns it onto a stack of DVDs, and hands it out lots of people in other parts of the city. Pretty soon he’s established a city-wide independent, non-US government sanctioned, encrypted, peer-to-peer wireless internet system and a new identity on it.

Easy, wasn’t it?

A series of juvenile adventures ensues, enabled by unmoderated communication within this network.

In Chapter 12 an improvised rock concert is organized in Dolores Park where our main guy has a great date with his girlfriend, only briefly interrupted by:

The police moved in in lines, carrying plastic shields, wearing Darth Vader helmets that covered their faces. Each one had a black truncheon and infra-red goggles. They looked like soldiers out of some futuristic war movie. They took a step forward in unison and every one of them banged his truncheon on his shield, a cracking noise like the earth splitting. Another step, another crack. They were all around the park and closing in now.

Cory Doctorow does a good dramatic reading of this episode here. It doesn’t seem so good in the text. And anyway, it’s only 9 years behind the curve, following the battle in Seattle in 1999, except without the politics or the excitement of having cornered the masters of the universe in their luxury hotel towers while they drafted the next round of trade agreements designed to require every city to sell their water supplies to transnational corporations.

There was newspaper article about him and his book, titled Cory Doctorow: willing science fiction into fact, but it should have actually been Cory Doctorow: using dated facts to create meaningless fiction. All his talks about writing always begin with the bald statement that:

“All science fiction writers, whether they admit it or not, are writing metaphorically about the present.”

If he was more truthful, he’s say:

“When I write science fiction, I am really writing about my own childhood.”

Among the things that could have appeared in his book, Doctorow could have written about a nimble bit of instant teenage hacking of a careless Microsoft-based government security network, making it possible for the main character to gain some sort of privileged access into the police networks in order to provide a wider perspective of what’s going on.

It’s fiction. And fiction should endeavour to show as much about all sides of the story as possible. These faceless storm trooper cops are people too. They have homes, and families, and beliefs that may or may not come into conflict with the jobs they are paid to do. What do they feel about it all? How do they deal with it?

Unfortunately, any such fictional speculation of this through available devices of, say, the electronic snooping of a private conversation between shifts from one of these police troopers to his girlfriend would interfere with their singularly one-dimensional nature and show up just how very two-dimensional all the main characters are while they fold their way through this uninspiring and predictable plot.

But back to the book.

After finally confessing to his parents about his ordeal in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security in Chapter 16, our kid spills his whole story to a friendly reporter, then gets picked up by his interrogators in Chapter 20 (including “severe haircut woman”) a second time, and, at the point where he is about to be waterboarded, he gets rescued by the California Highway Patrol who arrest all the federal agents, only to clear them all of wrong-doing and send them off to work in Iraq.

Angered by this lack of justice, our hero releases a video podcast about his story in preparation for defeating the state governor’s re-election bid.

Overall. After a very rough beginning, I warmed to the book in the middle chapters in spite of the implausibilities, but then got seriously pissed off towards the end as the lack of content became apparent. Yes I know fiction has to be entertaining and comprehensible, but it should also broaden your perspective and show you feelings you never knew you had so you can become a better more well-rounded person. Otherwise it’s an irresponsible and stupefying waste of time, totally purposeless and more inexcusable than government propaganda.

Reviewing the reviews, I can tell I am mostly alone with regards to my opinions about the worth this book, especially when compared to what it could have been. Even when you discount the conflict-of-interest reviews by other writers who will want Cory to plug their own books in his overblown BoingBoing blog, I am in a minority.

The review on Yehuda however matches my feelings:

I like Cory, and I like Boing Boing, but Cory did not succeed in writing a mediocre science fiction book. Little Brother is a really bad book with some good intentions, bad writing, very poor characterization, and a serviceable but ridiculous plot.

People have to say it. Make it known. Maybe one day when he hosts a week of a Clarion writers class, the students will get organized enough to pull out and exhibit some of the worst written sections from this highly-acclaimed novel and circulate it among the group as an illustration of how writing quality, like the quality of the meat in a burger bar, has little to do with commercial success.

Commercial success and fame are predicated on other factors. We don’t know how much he sells out without informing his readers on his uber-Blog.

It would just be kinder to the world if those whose work was chosen to be widely read by society could be bothered to put in a little more effort and thought into the work.

Even if their fame and unquestioning fan base means they don’t need to.

I blame the publisher for not sending this book back to him immediately with a note that it needs working on for a couple of years to gestate properly. You can’t expect writers to be wholly responsible for their own quality control and to know when it’s blatantly obvious they’re not doing a good job. This book is a disgrace.


  • 1. Posts about Boing Boing a&hellip replies at 30th June 2009, 12:44 pm :

    […] about Boing Boing as of June 30, 2009 Cory Doctorow’s little bother with writing – 06/30/2009 Review written last year. Finally got round to posting it because […]

  • 2. Al Billings replies at 30th June 2009, 3:52 pm :

    An infantile and cheap review.

    It must frost your shorts that we just co-won the Locus award for this book the other day. I guess others do not share your poor opinion of the work.

  • 3. Cory Doctorow’s little &hellip replies at 30th June 2009, 3:59 pm :

    […] Here is the original: Cory Doctorow’s little bother with writing […]

  • 4. Julian Todd replies at 30th June 2009, 4:49 pm :

    Thanks for the compliment Al. I can assure you that this review was not cheap. Your shorts must be able to come up with a better response.

  • 5. Laura replies at 2nd June 2010, 7:58 am :

    As someone said to me at TheStory2010, the good thing about Cory’s fiction is that it’s all published under Creative Commons, so in theory others can remix his ideas into better written forms – substituting for the good editor who could have enhanced the original books. I feel he has some good concepts, but I find it hard going wading through the actual words.

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