Saturday, November 27, 2010

Doctorow's Little Brother

Shorter Little Brother: Whatever you do, don't torture the white kid.

This is a deeply irksome YA book by Cory Doctorow -- irksome in the sense that it's one of those books where the author sees perfectly well what he's writing and then writes it anyway. Markus is a 17 year old white kid. The friends who we see him interacting with are all properly multicultural in various ways, but he's their leader. Marcus engages in some adolescent rebelliousness around a Department of Homeland Security squad that's been amped up by a nearby major terrorist attack and Marcus gets put through all of the by now familiar to us minor tortures: stress positions, isolation, threats that he will be disappeared, etc. Marcus then is released and swears that he'll get the DHS, especially since they disappeared one of his friends. Marcus ends up in "Gitmo-by-the-Bay" -- this happens in San Francisco -- but just as he's being waterboarded, local cops informed by a muckraking reporter burst in, arrest the DHS agents, and save him. Then the DHS is effectively kicked out of California due to the public scandal of local teens disappearing into the gulag.

They had me chained to five other prisoners, all of whom had been in for a lot longer than me. One only spoke Arabic -- he was an old man, and he trembled. The others were all young. I was the only white one. Once we had been gathered on the deck of the ferry, I saw that nearly everyone on Treasure Island had been one shade of brown or another. (pg. 352)

Let's consider that for a moment. Everyone immediately calls the prison on Treasure Island Gitmo by the Bay. Why? Because they are all familiar with the real Gitmo, of course. The book is set is a post-9/11 imaginary America that is supposed to be ours. Was Gitmo a scandal for these people in the book? No, no more than Gitmo has been a scandal in real life. I mean, it's been a scandal, but it's still holding prisoners. No one bothered to do anything about it, really. So why was Marcus' story so scandalous?

Well, because he's a local teenager. Teenagers were, of course, routinely tortured by our forces in Iraq, but he's a local kid. Local kids in California are routinely sent to prison on minor drug charges, or shipped off to somewhere if they are illegal and brown, but hey -- this is a middle-class, white teenager. We aren't supposed to do bad things to them. The reaction of the people in the book makes sense if you tacitly assume that people in California couldn't care less about torture as something happening to Others, but do care if it's a kid who looks like one of the kids of the important people.

That seems fairly realistic, actually. Good for Doctorow, for writing a grittily truthful, unpleasant book -- but wait. It's not gritty, or truthful, or unpleasant other than a few well-done torture scenes. No one really confronts this at all, not authorially and not within the world of the book. Marcus is just the natural leader of his group of non-white friends, most of whom spent significant parts of their screen time embarrassing him by telling him how awesome he is, and when his captivity and that of his white friend who got taken at the start of the book is discovered and publicized, it's just instant scandal and DHS stopped and that's a wrap.

Why do I find this irksome? Doctorow is a competent writer. His heart is clearly in the right place. I find it irksome for the same basic cluelessness that's in too much of techno-libertarian agitprop. Because that's a large part of this book: bits about crypto, and Linux, and trust networks, and all the rest. And faith that if the truth comes out, it will mean something. Will it?

What really happens in this book is that the security forces made the mistake of victimizing a child of privilege. All the rest of the book could have pretty much been short-cut if Marcus had told his parents about what happened to him when he got home, they'd told the reporter they contacted, and on from there. But instead we get lots of bits about hacking game machines, as if that would have made a difference if Marcus had instead been his Latino friend.

What's the current real-life equivalent to this book? Let's take Wikileaks as an example. Of course I support Wikileaks. They're doing good things. Historians will have a much better picture of what happened in our era because of the material they archived. But have their revelations changed anything? No. People in America really already knew that our armed forces murdered civilians in Iraq with impunity. They didn't care, and they still don't care. No anonymizer or encoding scheme or clever hack is going to get them to care. No revelation of the truth is going to matter to people who already know the truth. Evasion of our security systems will not let you evade what's in people's hearts.

Let's leave Marcus' whiteness aside for the moment. Would people really care about Gitmo by the Bay? The families of the people imprisoned would, of course. Would anyone else? Our society already has little Gitmos all over. It's quite normal for people to suddenly be sent to prison. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, and the highest documented prison population in the world. Yes, this is a method of controlling the underclass, but sometimes a middle-class white kid has to be put away as an example. I think that Gitmo-by-the-Bay might have ended up as just as much of a nonscandal as Gitmo has been, really. Could it happen that it's a politics-changing scandal as presented in the book? Sure. But it wouldn't happen so overwhelmingly, so easily. The lesson of the Bush years, and now the Obama years, is that the truth will not set you free.

So this a book with its heart in the right place, and it's also thoroughly, although unintentionally, dishonest, or at least misleading. Irksome.


  1. I thought California already had its own Gitmo by the Bay: Pelican Bay State Prison. The SVU unit is a pathological nightmare, without heat, and 22.5 hours of solitary each day, when the prisoners aren't tortured. And if Pelican Bay isn't sufficient, then Centinela State Prison on the Salton Sea makes up for it; with a fully charged electric fence (originally 500 amps killing all wildlife within 100 yards, but reduced to 50 amps to make it safer for the birds flying around) separating the four groups of prisoners, the prison runs on a smaller staff than any of the other Level IV in the state. Doctorow could have written a non-fiction book that would have been much scarier.

  2. Thanks for the local info, spyder. Yeah, that was one of my problems with the book -- the existing prisons and torture don't count because those are scary criminals who have been put there by respectable people wearing black robes, and no kid like Marcus ever gets thrown in there without cause. I guess.

    Maybe he thought that since it's a YA book it needed a happy ending. But... the best YA books are still honest. This book is sort of half-honest. There's one scene in which Marcus' friend drops out of the kids' rebellion because he's a Latino, and he tells Marcus that he can't get away with as much as a white kid can. And Marcus doesn't want his friend to drop out, but he understands. Yet that understanding doesn't make him question his "I love America, I just want us to follow our ideals" bit at all. A return to normalcy is a return to a reality in which his friend is only normally at risk for no reason -- but that's OK, you know? First get these scary DHS thugs away from the white people, and then sometime later maybe we can do something about that.

    Marcus stops by an anarchist bookstore, too. In a countervailing example of Doctorow's commitment to realism, he goes there to try to impress his girlfriend, and to pick up an Emma Goldman poster with that "If I can't dance" quote that she never actually said or wrote.