Moving briskly through a hotel lobby in his gym shoes and white ear buds, writer Cory Doctorow could pass for an older version of Marcus Yallow, the propulsive teen hero of his new novel, “Little Brother” (Tor, $17.95).
Like Marcus, Doctorow thinks fast, explains often, breathes online networks and cares deeply about privacy, freedom and electronic rights.
In a near-future San Francisco, Marcus and some friends have ditched school to play an alternate-reality game, scavenging for a clue in the city. When a big explosion goes off nearby, the teens are fingered as possible terrorists and swept into a soul-crushing ordeal with Homeland Security.
When Marcus finally wriggles free of custody, he is determined to take down what he sees as a paranoid bureaucracy, using ingenuity and like-minded hackers as his arsenal.
Doctorow, 36, has a big footprint in the adult world as a sci-fi writer (“Overclocked,” “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”), co-editor of the blog BoingBoing and electronic rights activist. “Little Brother” is his first book of fiction for teens.
“Someone called it `Ferris Bueller’ Meets `Neuromancer,’” Doctorow said during an interview at a downtown Milwaukee hotel, where he was warming up for a bookstore appearance.
While “Little Brother” depicts a world that is relentlessly digital, with perfidious arphids (radio frequency identification tags) and guerilla Xbox networks, Doctorow’s literary lodestar is an analog fellow.
“I call it George Orwell fan fiction sometimes,” Doctorow said. “I read `1984’ when I was 12 for the first time. It made a really big impression on me.”
It must have: Doctorow’s title is a riff on Orwell’s totalitarian icon Big Brother, and Marcus’ online handle is w1n5t0n, or Winston, the same name as the protagonist of “1984.”
“If I was a young person today, instead of looking at computers the way I always did when I was young as tools that will, like, open new horizons for me and give me more control over my life, . . . I’d be really suspicious of technology,” Doctorow said. “I would think of it as something that snitched on me and spied on me and sought to control me.”
In “Little Brother,” Doctorow never hesitates to put the techno in the techno-thriller. Marcus is happy to explain how an onion router works or why the Enigma machine episode changed cryptography.
“Once you get to naming your laptop, you know that you’re really having a deep relationship with it,” he said. “I was a geeky 17-year-old, and when you’re a geeky 17-year-old you spend a lot of time kind of frothingly excited about stuff that no one else understands.”
Yet Marcus is a feeler as well as a thinker; he’s aware of, and sensitive about, his friends’ crushes as well as his own. Rebel he may be, but he loves his mom and has a warm regard for a friendly teacher.
As he has done with his earlier books, Doctorow has released a free electronic version of “Little Brother” under a Creative Commons license that allows users to read, share and remix the text non-commercially (see craphound.com/littlebrother/download for details and license explanations).
“Publisher Tim O’Reilly says for most authors the problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity,” Doctorow said. “Electronic copies tend to be more enticement than substitute,” he added.
“My book gets into people’s hands who would otherwise never have found out about it.”
Cory Doctorow talks about “Little Brother,” George Orwell, sharing works electronically and what’s on his iPod. Find the podcast at www.jsonline.com/links/.
Author Cory Doctorow has a substantial presence in cyberspace:
Craphound.com: His personal Web site, includes his electronic texts and other goodies.
BoingBoing.net: Doctorow co-edits this popular blog, subtitled “A Directory of Wonderful Things.”
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article