Dec 26

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Neil Gaiman on Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother"

Cory Doctorow just sent out the following note:

Neil Gaiman gave me an unexpected Christmas present this year -- a stellar review of my forthcoming novel Little Brother (a YA novel that pits hacker kids in San Francisco against the DHS in a bid to restore the Bill of Rights to America) on his blog. He has a few quibbles with some of the plot elements, but closes with this:
    "I'd recommend Little Brother over pretty much any book I've read this year, and I'd want to get it into the hands of as many smart 13 year olds, male and female, as I can."

    "Because I think it'll change lives. Because some kids, maybe just a few, won't be the same after they've read it. Maybe they'll change politically, maybe technologically. Maybe it'll just be the first book they loved or that spoke to their inner geek. Maybe they'll want to argue about it and disagree with it. Maybe they'll want to open their computer and see what's in there. I don't know. It made me want to be 13 again right now and reading it for the first time, and then go out and make the world better or stranger or odder. It's a wonderful, important book, in a way that renders its flaws pretty much meaningless.

I agree. I read a draft of Little Brother earlier this year and loved it. The title, in case it's not obvious, is a takeoff on George Orwell's "Big Brother" from 1984. The novel highlights the dangers of the surveillance society we're now living in when it is kicked into high gear by threats of terrorism. It's a lovely book, a good story, but also profoundly educational.

When I read this book, I couldn't help but think of a now mostly-forgotten Victorian novelist, Captain Marryat, a former British Navy officer during the Napoleonic wars. (He made captain just as peace broke out.) Marryat wrote a number of young adult novels. One of these, Masterman Ready, could be characterized as the complete moral and practical guide to surviving a shipwreck. As much a tutorial as a novel, it gives practical advice on how to build shelters and a fish pond, as well as how to take adversity in stride.

Like young victorians preparing for an imagined shipwreck under the tutelage of Masterman Ready, Little Brother provides all the practical advice you'd need if you were a hacker teen faced with one of your buddies being hauled off to jail by over-zealous homeland security. Maybe it won't actually happen that way, but learning how to think your way through the problem in an imagined crisis is a fabulous way to learn. Even if you're not a young adult.

As Neil Gaiman also wrote in his review:

Cory is one of the Explainers. The people who see what's going on, or what they perceive to be going on, and then turn around and tell everyone else, and once you've heard it their way you can't ever see it the old way again.

Read this book. You'll learn a great deal about computer security, surveillance and how to counter it, and the risk of trading off freedom for "security." And you'll have fun doing it.

tags: book related  | comments: 13   | Sphere It

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Comments: 13

  Kirrily Robert [12.26.07 08:15 PM]

Ha! Never expected to see you blog about Marryat, but isn't he wonderful?

  Marcus [12.27.07 05:20 AM]

It'll change their lives until they look for his other work and find the great big blowhard boingboing, and realize he just feeds off of everyone else's creativity.

At least they'll learn the valuable lesson that its the distributors of memes, not the originators of memes, who profit, a la Google, RIAA, et al.

  Tim O'Reilly [12.27.07 09:50 AM]

Kirrily --

And I would never have expected to find another Marryat reader out there! He's pretty obscure. But one of my hobbies is reading authors that were once famous but now largely forgotten. There are some real gems.

  Tim O'Reilly [12.27.07 09:59 AM]

Marcus --

I see you have something against BoingBoing, which is too bad, since most people find it a great site. But you give no indication of ever having read any of Cory's books, or heard him speak about any of the topics about which he is so passionate. If you want to make a comment of substance, someone might pay attention.

Meanwhile, you might think about the word "blowhard" and wonder if it applies closer to home.

  Bob [12.28.07 07:59 AM]

Mr. O'Reilly, not to hijack your posting, but care to elaborate on any other once famous authors that are gems but relatively unknown now? Even a short list would be much appreciated!!!!

I look froward to Cory's new book as some of his others are among my favorites.

  Tim O'Reilly [12.28.07 10:39 AM]

Well, how about Upton Sinclair's Lanny Budd novels, which trace the history of the 20th century. (He actually won the Pulitzer for one of those novels, not the far more famous book The Jungle.) They give an amazing view of the political debates of the time in a way that doesn't come through in a history text. It's like a ringside seat at the tables of the great.

John Marquand also wrote novels popular during World War II. I got a better sense of ordinary people from BF's Daughter than I'd gotten anywhere else. It's a book of its time, which is why it's no longer read, but also what makes it special.

There are also many well known authors that are not as widely read as they should be.

I'm a huge fan of Anthony Trollope, for example. The Warden is one of the most charming character pieces ever written. Who would have thought that petty ecclesiastical politics in the 1850s could be so engaging, the moral dilemmas so profound?

Or Zane Grey. If he'd written his five or six best books, he'd be considered a great author. Instead, he plagiarized himself endlessly, and became a caricature. But what a mythmaker! We all live with his imagined West as our historical backdrop.

Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia, which was a bestseller in the 40s, gets republished from time to time. It's a magnificent utopian novel. One of my favorite books of all time, about an imaginary agrarian country where live proceeds at a slower pace, and where the values of the modern world aren't taken as gospel.

I love the historical fiction of Samuel Shellabarger and Rafael Sabatini. (Shellabarger wrote only five novels, while Sabatini was so prolific I have yet to find them all, yet alone read them.) And of course, far from forgotten by her current passionate fans is Dorothy Dunnett, perhaps the best historical novelist of all.

When I was fourteen years old, I was incredibly taken with the Victorian spiritualist novels of Marie Corelli. Unlike some of the other authors I mention, I haven't read them since, so I have no idea whether I'd still find them enjoyable.

I could go on and on. Find me on goodreads. I've just started posting books there, but eventually, I'll put a lot more there.

  bowerbird [12.28.07 02:28 PM]

marryat is one of the authors who is favored by
nicholas hodson, one of the very best individual
book-digitizers in the world these days, so you
will find lots of marryat e-books at his website:

you should also do a search at internet archive and
project gutenberg, where nicholas has put his books.

his scan-sets, in particular, are very well-done,
and should be used as a model by google and o.c.a.
also note his digital text is extremely accurate.


  Michael R. Bernstein [12.31.07 11:51 AM]

How about Bertrand R. Brinley's 'Mad Scientist Club' series (now reprinted by Purple House Press)?

  Michael R. Bernstein [12.31.07 06:31 PM]

Tim, speaking of GoodReads, have you folks at ORA done any Web 2.0-type analysis of them vs. LibraryThing?

  JimBob [01.02.08 12:43 PM]

Unfortunately, whatever instructions the book gives for dealing with surveillance in the future will be put out of date, perhaps because of "Little Brother" itself.

  Tim O'Reilly [01.02.08 01:07 PM]

JimBob --

What was so cool about this book was the way it helps teach kids (and others) how to *think* about security measures and countermeasures. A lot of that goes beyond specific techniques.

  Maki [05.16.08 06:38 PM]

well, I loved The Children of the New Forest from Marryat because it tells a story of children surviving in the forest (duh) all alone and then take part in revolution, I'll have to check gutenberg for e-book... but I thought I was the only one...

  Danielle [06.22.08 05:36 PM]

Wow, I'm a little late on the commenting... but I just bought this book today. I've been reading it online (thank-you Mr. Doctorow for putting the book online) but I felt that the online method was too impersonal for the depth of this book, and I just needed a physical copy. I first found out about [I]Little Brother[/I] on Scott Westerfeld's blog, in fact. Like so many other amazing authors, he had nothing but praise for this book. As do I. And I'm 15. This is my kind of book. While I've always been partial to science fiction-y books (once again, due to Mr. Westerfeld) I would love this book regardless. It's right-around-the-corner feel of the future combine with interesting and believable technology makes the science-fiction lover in me smile. But at the same time it's sure to be loved by an incredibly broad audience. I, for one, found it both necessary (as many, many others had said) and enjoyable... an excellent book, in other words.

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