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Little lessons

Cory Doctorow’s Nineteen Eighty-Four homage is too cool for school

BY John Degen
Illustration by Evan Munday

Cory Doctorow, the Canadian sci-fi superstar, has a parallel international career as a very public defender of freedom. Doctorow’s books, by any standard, are bestsellers, reaching a huge crossover audience of both geek and non-geek varieties. He has worked as director of European affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a kind of civil liberties union for the online world, and regularly blogs and speaks on copyright and electronic security issues, using the platform of Boing Boing (widely considered one of the world’s most popular blogs) to advance his issues as well as his career.

Doctorow is credited with producing the very first novel distributed under a Creative Commons copyright licence, allowing derivative if not commercial reuse of his writing, all of which he distributes for free through his website, while still selling physical books by the pulpy tonne. Clearly lacking in leisure skills, he also writes for major newspapers and magazines around the world. He is, simply put, one of the great success stories of Canadian writing, if not publishing (Doctorow is published by Tor Books out of New York), in the last half-decade.

Doctorow’s latest book, Little Brother, is a young adult novel dealing with issues of political authority, social order, individual freedom and electronic security in a post-9/11 world. As its title suggests, Little Brother is blatantly referential to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. For instance, the main character’s online handle is w1n5t0n, or—for those of us who thought the mashing of letters and numbers stopped being fun after spelling 8008 on a calculator—Winston, also the name of Orwell’s unfortunate main character.

As both a great fan of Orwell and someone who fears repressive authoritarian regimes, I find myself sadly disappointed with this homage, part of which, I admit, is a political disagreement. I was immediately offended by Doctorow’s too casual, too dismissive, too formulaic critique of authority. Nevertheless, I kept reading in good faith, wanting to recognize good writing in my free download of Little Brother. Instead, I got Ferris Bueller Takes on Homeland Security.

A charming San Francisco high school rebel skips his inexplicably repressive school (populated by cartoonishly authoritarian teachers and admin staff) to play a harmless online game, and is caught up in a security sweep following a major terrorist attack that kills thousands. To fight back against his government oppressors, w1n5t0n, also called M1k3y, creates an internet counterculture called the Xnet and spreads the gospel of the Bill of Rights so that kids can be kids again—skip school at will, play whatever video games they want and go to free concerts and stuff. It’s the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right,” only without the crucial irony.

Both Winstons are arrested and psychologically manhandled by repressive authoritarian regimes bent on security through complete surveillance. Both genuinely suffer—Winston Smith is famously fitted with a facial rat cage, while M1k3y is almost waterboarded (of course). By the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith is psychologically destroyed and betrays his lover Julia; while M1k3y and his gal pal Ange save the world, have respectably safe romantic sex and then go out for a burrito. Some might call this kind of pandering “speaking to youth in their own language.” I call it pandering. It’s as if the book were written by that young(ish) professor who wants his undergrad class to call him by his first name and invite him to their parties. After all, he might bring some weed. He’s just that cool.

I’m not sure where the book lost me completely as a sympathetic reader. It could have been the early description of the high school vice-principal as “a sucking chest-wound of a human being.” It might have been when the Homeland Security agents all appeared as jocks and preppies to w1n5t0n’s genial nerd character. It’s hard to tell. But the frame of the book provides the greatest insight into what I can only describe as Doctorow’s problematic relationship with his readers’ intellectual freedom. Instead of using the standard apolitical copyright notice declaring All Rights Reserved, Doctorow fronts his book with a threepage manifesto called The Copyright Thing, and then finishes the text with five more excruciating pages explaining in detail the ins and outs of his Creative Commons licence. And I quote: “Unless otherwise mutually agreed to by the parties in writing and to the fullest extent permitted by applicable law…”

No wonder the kids love this dude. He’s all about the parties.


John Degen thinks being a high school vice-principal is probably a pretty hard and thankless job.

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