Monday, 23 April 2012

Little Brother

Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
-The American Declaration of Indepencence

People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.
-V For Vendetta

The Americans have got a lot wrong when it comes to human rights and civil liberties. In fact, in recent times it's become a habit of mine to read a headline related to American justice and predict the story. The continued existence of the death penalty is a particular bone of contention of mine - how can a nation that thinks of itself as civilised maintain such a barbarous way of dispensing 'justice'? I can point you in the direction of Guantanamo Bay for another human rights abuse. Hundreds of men have been held without indefinitely in a detention facility, to face trial in a military tribunal rather than in a open civilian court. And then there are the civil rights abuses which you still hear about, where a black man is apparently worth less than his white contemporary and a gay man can still be pilloried in the courts of public opinion for his sexuality.

A lot of work needs to be done to make America the proud nation it should have been.

The saddest thing about it is that there are so many fantastic underlying principles that any civil liberties or democracy campaigner could admire. Just look at the Constitution. As a modern document it has its problems, but in setting out the inalienable rights of the governed it acts as a barrier against tyranny and blazes a trail future documents - such as the European Convention on Human Rights - have been able to continue along. By modern standards it's grossly outdated and needs an overhaul, but it was the trendsetter that the entire free world should look to as the venerable grandfather of human rights legislation.

It also set out the principles of American government (based famously on Montesquieu's principle of the separation of powers, one of the first things any politics or law student learns at the start of their degree), along the lines of the declaration of independence. The attitudes of the people who use it may leave a lot to be desired politically, and its execution is somewhat overcomplicated and self-defeating at times, but the document itself is still a thing to be admired in its principles. With a man like Josiah Bartlet in charge (allied with a seismic shift in attitudes towards the left wing, finally getting rid of the American loathing of socialism), America's political and social future, with this document at its heart, could put it at the forefront of the world's developing attitudes.

Cory Doctorow is a Canadian writer who uses this vision of an ideal America to influence his 2008 novel Little Brother. Doctorow is a name well-known in SF circles, having come to attention in recent years with many excellent short stories and a number of novels. In Little Brother he focuses on the post-9/11 world, on civil liberties and increasing security measures - and on what powers the people have to take back their rights.

Ostensibly, Little Brother is a young adult SF novel, but no one should let that put them off. It's a sophisticated novel which harks back to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, among others. In it, a terrorist attack hits San Francisco, killing thousands. Marcus, a seventeen-year-old high school student and tech-wizard is caught up in the attack with a group of his friends, only to find himself arrested by the Department of Homeland Security, detained for several days, interrogated and eventually set free with a warning that he'll have his every move watched. On the outside again, he finds his country transformed into a police state, with everyone's movements tracked, communications monitored, and free speech curtailed. So he decides to do something - bring down the DHS.

Most YA readers will enjoy the story of one boy sticking it to the man. It certainly has enough to keep the more mature readers of that age group engaged, even if they're not looking for a novel that investigates the erosion of civil liberties. There's an everyman protagonist in Marcus, who has an interesting group of friends and even does a bit of dating in the name of growing up. It's not a difficult read by any stretch, either, but there's enough depth to make it satisfying even to the casual reader.

But to glean the most from it you shouldn't read it as a casual read. Read it with human rights, governmental powers and the Big Brother world in mind. To a point, it's a love letter to the rights of every man in the West and the ideal America, best summed up by Marcus's outburst against the government's actions in combating terrorism by curtailing rights on page 203 of the Harper Voyager edition:

"The whole point of America is that we're the country where dissent is welcome. We're a country of dissidents and fighters and university dropouts and free speech people."

The sentiment is idealistic in the extreme. No reader will read that and think that the country depicted is the true America - the land where being socialist is almost a crime and where not too long back having the wrong colour skin made you ineligible to vote and pushed you to the back of a bus - but it's what civil liberties campaigners would love to see.

The other thread running through the book asks the question of how far a government should go in order to protect its people. In this case, it instigates a surveillance society - that has already been encroaching on some liberties even before the terror attack - with ever-more heavy-handed tactics. Arresting dissidents and disappearing others is the tactic of a totalitarian society that inspires terror in its people - with the government to a point becoming the terrorists. Marcus also notes this early on. It all provides food for thought.

People are the power in democracy, another theme that runs through the book. Doctorow shows the power one individual can hold if they are determined enough. He shows that a government does indeed rule with the consent of the governed (see again, idealistic vision of the United States).

So how highly would I recommend Little Brother? Extremely. With the exception of Embassytown, it's the best thing I've read so far this year. There are a few problems with the writing, but that shouldn't put anyone off. Read it and think.

And even better, it's available off Cory Doctorow's website for free. (Spot the mug who paid £7.99...)

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