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Saturday, 10 April 2010

Little Brother

This is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside-down. Now I'd like to take a minute, just sit right there, I'll tell you how I stayed up way too late reading an incredible story.

Yesterday, while researching the Digital Economy Bill, I stumbled across mention of an ebook called Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. I knew the author's name, of course; Doctorow is something of a big noise on the interwebs, though I'd never read anything of his before. The Creative Commons license on Little Brother and the price tag (£0.00) intrigued me, so I downloaded the PDF and decided to come back to it later.

That night, I was in Gavin's spare room. Our sleeping patterns are so different (me being a student and all) that I usually bring a book with me to read until I get tired. In the absence of a book, however, I resorted to reading on my phone; PDF wasn't an option, but such is the magic of Creative Commons that it was available in loads of different formats. I ended up reading the HTML version.

For five hours.

I got wrapped up in the story: a teenage boy and his hacker friends. A government that responds to terrorism with shows of force. A prison kept secret from the public. All these elements caught me up and kept me reading, long past the point where it was just 'something to do until I got tired.' For the first three hours, I told myself that when my already-low phone battery died, I'd go to sleep; but when it finally did, I went downstairs and got my phone charger. I endured multiple phone crashes, every time patiently restarting and scrolling to where I'd left off.

At some points, I had to stop reading just to catch my breath and let my heart slow down. At others, I completely forgot where I was - I couldn't have cared less, all that mattered was the story! It's hard to classify, exactly. It's technically a dystopic, futuristic sci-fi, I suppose; but it could be non-fiction within a couple of years. That alone makes it deeply unsettling, and thoroughly in the spirit of Orwell's 1984, for which it was named.

Being the excitable little fellow that I am, I couldn't even wait until I finished it before telling the world. I announced on Twitter: "Head full of thoughts. Too excited to sleep. Damn... You KNOW when you're reading something that will change you." It's been an awfully long time since a book's done that to me.

Obviously, I can't promise that you'll react the way I did, or even that you'll like it. But I feel compelled to share it. There's a lot of information in the book about what you can legally do with it and why, and Doctorow's kindly allowed for the fact that I want EVERYBODY to read it. I have the PDF on my USB key; I will leave a copy on the desktop of everyone I feasibly can. Is he losing money on it? No, I fully intend to buy a copy, something I wouldn't have done previously. Another small victory for the new way of doing things, I think.

Read Little Brother for yourself. The link will go in my 'interesting things' sidebar.

PS I'm listening to a Podcast of the Lib Dem debate on the DE Bill, it makes for very interesting listening.
PPS For something less serious and more noodly, check out Spaghatta Nadle.


  1. Got me hooked, I'll check it out for sure! Thanks for the tip. :)

  2. Fascinating.
    I'm always interested in books that have real impact.
    I'll have to read it too. (I've never read any of Cory's fiction either)

  3. It's an amazing book and I'm delighted you've discovered it too.

    I once gave that Doctorow a lift to Oxford station, and en route I got zapped by a speed camera. The irony was not lost on me.

  4. Wow, really? How d'you know him?

    I usually don't even notice the cameras. I've never felt so uncomfortable about that. Considered taking photos of all the CCTV cameras I could find, and seeing how long it took to get arrested.

  5. Oh, we go way back.

    Actually we don't - I've met him precisely twice. Once was last year in Montreal where we both sat on a panel discussing writing for young people and I was able to tell him the speed camera anecdote. The first was the time of the anecdote, in 2003, when he gave a talk at one of the Oxford colleges and because we were both going the same way after, I offered him a lift ...

  6. Have just ordered a copy from Amazon on the strength of your enthusiasm. (Oh, and I also loved the photos you'd posted under 'Found on Flickr 9' by the way)

  7. Thanks Erin, I'd love to hear what you think of it! x

  8. Hi Anna, it's me again. I started Little Brother earlier today and I've just finished it - like you I couldn't put it down. I LOVED it!!! So glad I happened upon your blog and your review of the book. Like you I want to tell everyone about this little gem. It is so thought-provoking. I loved the bit about 99% 'accuracy' of spotting likely terrorists, meaning that 10,000 innocent people would get wrongly profiled as such. The best kind of fiction makes you look at the real world in a whole new light. What are we doing to our freedoms in the name of anti-terrorist security measures? What are we doing to our ethics, our humanity? The argument that innocent people with nothing to hide shouldn't mind when privacy is invaded is blown apart.

  9. Hi Erin, that's great! I'm SO glad you enjoyed it, it really is thought-provoking isn't it. Yes, the 99% part made me stop and think too - maths isn't my strong point, but he explained it well.

    I was still wrestling with some ideas for days after I finished it - the public / private key thing, for example - and I'll definitely read it again.

    Please stop by again Erin, I've really enjoyed your comments!
    A x x

  10. On the strength of this post, I downloaded and read 'Little Brother', and think that I'll join you in recommending it to everyone I know. A really powerful book, considering how relatively short it is, and one that's made me a bit more thoughtful about technology and security-related issues.

    Most of all, I like it because I know that it has had exactly the same effect on me that reading '1984' had on my father - books like these need to be written, and (although it's sad that such dystopian topics are still relevant) I think there's something slightly magical about different generations realising the same things through literature written decades apart.

    Thank you :)

  11. I'm so glad you like it, Miki. You're right, these books do need to be written. They're a wake up call. I only recently read 1984 myself, and definitely felt the same enjoyable unease from it.


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