In a May 20 column in the British paper The Guardian, author/Internet personality Cory Doctorow commented on how terrible people are at understanding probability and statistically rare occurrences. The column jumps around, touching on everything from Vegas odds to stranger-danger pedophile attacks, but it centers on a crucial point: The security systems aimed at capturing terrorists are fundamentally flawed, and by their nature, they're far less likely to succeed at their goals than they are to invade regular folks' privacy, impede their freedom, and create new problems.
Oddly, Doctorow presents a tighter, more focused version of that exact argument over the course of 380 pages in his taut pop novel Little Brother than he does in the 750-word column. Where the Guardian piece tries to be broad and inclusive, Little Brother limits itself to specific ways in which draconian post-Patriot Act policies are harming a meekly acquiescing American society. The novel opens with 17-year-old San Franciscan Marcus Yallow using clever workarounds to evade his school's anti-truancy motion detectors and RFID chips. (As usual, Doctorow's clear explanations of current and five-minutes-into-the-future techno-flummery are reminiscent of Neal Stephenson's.) Because they're cutting class, Marcus and some friends wind up on the streets during a terrorist attack. So they're bagged, tagged, and imprisoned by the Department Of Homeland Security, which treats them and hundreds of others as enemy combatants, deserving of contempt, abuse, and egregious rights violations. Marcus' experience in their cells and interrogation rooms has a deep psychological effect, and he sets out to regain his privacy and self-respect by creating a surveillance-proof communications network. Soon, he's in an all-out war against the DHS' increasingly invasive data-mining programs and fascistic social crackdowns.
Little Brother is being marketed as a young-adult novel, but it's an entertaining, smart all-ages read. While it props up a villainous straw man or two, and veers into Harry Potter fantasy territory at the point where a sympathetic teacher is magically replaced by a one-dimensional DHS stoolie, it mostly sticks to believable current events, and believable reactions to them on both sides. The tight thriller storyline and ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy are nigh-irresistible. And yet Little Brother still allows room for typically informational Doctorow asides, from how-to lessons on finding hidden cameras and encrypting private information to intelligent analysis of why anti-terrorist policies need to be retooled. Little Brother isn't quite The Anarchist Cookbook, but as a call to arms (or at least to changing attitudes for anyone aggravated by "If you aren't a terrorist, you don't need privacy" cant), it's convincing and a great read.