Symbolism

Charles Walker: Charles Walker is a symbol of the DHS as an entity: he is violent in addition to being an informant, and spits out exactly what the DHS want to hear in Social Studies class. Towards the end of the book he tries to send a picture of Marcus to the DHS but Masha stops him.

Xbox Universal: Marcus’s Xbox represents hope as well as connection- with his Xbox, Marcus can transform from a regular teen with little influence to M1K3Y, and have an army a thousand strong ready to do whatever it takes to win the city back.

DHS: Represents tyranny and oppression as well as invasion; this is portrayed through their ever watchfulness, torture methods and their use of Patriot Act II.

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The Xnet

When Marcus returns home from Treasure Island, he finds that his computer has been bugged. He quickly thinks of a solution: he breaks out his old Xbox Universal and boots up Paranoid Xbox, a system which allows him to hop between internet connections so as to hide his internet usage.

However, Marcus can only surf the web alone at first- so he burns about 20 copies and brings them to school the next day so that his friends can also use Paranoid Xbox and chat and share with him. His friends then quickly spread it to their friends, which eventually led to thousands of San Francisco citizens using the software.

Eventually the nickname Xnet was pinned on the network, and users were called Xnetters. The Xnet was the only way to surf the internet in complete privacy- it was a revolutionary idea. However, the DHS eventually breached its security measures, which led to Marcus creating his own circle of trust (see the circle of trust section).

 

 

Minor Characters

Zeb: Was held prisoner at the same time as Marcus, was a cellmate with Darryl, managed to escape both DHS headquarters as well as the country by disguising himself as a homeless man. Convened with Masha in Brazil. Around Marcus’s age, intelligent and resourceful.

Masha: Is hired by the DHS after being deemed innocent to infiltrate the Xnet- grows tired of being watched and offers Marcus a chance to escape if he will help her escape. Masha is cunning, shrewd and physically strong for a teenager.

Carrie Johnstone: DHS officer in charge of interrogations. She administers torture on Marcus, who gives her the nickname “severe haircut woman”. She is allowed bail after the mass DHS arrests and is relocated to Iraq.

Ms. Galvez: Marcus’s social studies teacher for most of the book- she is replaced by someone the DHS approves more of. Ms. Galvez is very liberal with regards to her views.

Charles Walker: Charles is described as a bully who also snitches- a horrible combination. He is the reason Marcus gave up Live Role-Play Gaming, and the cause of many of his problems at school.

The events of the novel

The novel opens when Marcus Yallow is sitting in class and is called to the office by Vice Principal Fred Benson. Benson tries to pin Marcus with several school related electronic crimes, however, Marcus evades him. Marcus returns to class and coerces his best friend Darryl to skip class with him and meet up with their Alternate Reality Gaming group so they can look for clues in the city.

The two sneak out at lunch time by putting pebbles in their shoes to avoid the school’s gait-recognition cameras and by getting their tattle-tale classmate Charles Walker into trouble.

They then meet up with their team-mates and friends Vanessa and Jolu and begin to look for clues in the tenderloin district. A rival ARG group takes a picture of them and threatens to send it to the school unless they back off from the clue. At that moment, the Bay Bridge is bombed and the group try to make their way to the subway station so as to escape the huge mob of people, but Darryl gets stabbed and the crew is captured and placed  in a huge 18 wheeler with other prisoners.

Marcus finds out when he is interrogated that he has been detained by the DHS, and he refuses to cooperate. By this time, he is on an unknown island prison facility, and is thrown back into his cell. The next day he is asked to relinquish his phone password and other private data and he gives in. The next day he is asked to give information about the bombing, and when he insists he was not involved in the terrorist attacks he is thrown back into his cell.

Finally, the DHS allows him to sign release papers and ferry him back to San Francisco with Vanessa and Jolu. Darryl is still presumed to be with the DHS. The trio then discuss their plight and decide not to tell their parents about the DHS as they were threatened with recapture if they ever disclosed what happened on the island.

Marcus is welcomed home and tells his parents he was trapped in East Bay instead of interrogated. He goes to his bedroom and realises his laptop has been bugged. He then sets up his Xbox Universal and uses its Paranoid Linux internet browser to surf the internet in complete privacy.

The next day he inadvertently creates the Xnet by handing out copies of Paranoid Xbox to his friends at school who then burn copies for their friends. He is later interviewed by two cops who ask him about his subway usage, but then let him go. He then asks Jolu to help him further encrypt the Xnet.

After talking to Vanessa, he gets the idea of getting the Xnetters to jam peoples arphids so as to delay the DHS’s intrusive checkpoints. He tries the idea the next day and succeeds in slowing down the city. At first the DHS is criticized but the government then sends in more personnel to combat the “hackers”.

Marcus then realizes that the Xnet has been compromised and talks to Jolu about creating a web of trust. Jolu comes up with the idea of a key exchange party (see circle of trust section) and they hold the party with their friends. They all exchange public and private keys and Marcus meets Ange, his future girlfriend.

The two agree to meet at the upcoming Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25 concert as their first date. The concert is jam packed and fun until the DHS arrives and gasses the crowd- Marcus and Ange manage to escape by pretending to be bystanders. Later, Marcus is suspended from school for several weeks after talking back to his new DHS placed Social Studies teacher about the Constitution. He begins to spend more time at Ange’s house.

Several reporters begin to ask M1K3Y for interviews, and so with the help of Ange he sets up an Xnet press conference. However, the reporters blow what he is saying out of proportion and the Xnet continues to have a bad image.

Marcus decides not to jam because he wants to stay free, and this causes a rift between him and Ange. His suspension ends, and on his way back home, he bumps into Zeb, who slips him a letter. Marcus finds out from the letter that Darryl is still being held captive,and decides to tell his parents the truth about the DHS.

His parents support him and take him to see Darryl’s father and then reporter Barbara Stratford, who convinces Marcus to come out with his story. Marcus and Ange make up and then go to see Barbara together to tell her the whole story.

At Ange’s house, Marcus is emailed by someone in his circle of trust named Masha who offers to help him escape the country as she works for the DHS. He is skeptical, and so she sends him a video of a secret meeting between DHS operatives. Marcus tells her he and Ange will both go, and she tells him to organize an Xnet event to create a cover.

Ange and Marcus pack for their fugitive mission and then plan their large-scale Xnet vampire game at the civic center. The game has a huge turnout and starts off well, but the DHS gasses the crowd again. Masha manages to find Marcus, but they don’t have time to go back for Ange. On their way to the delivery van, Masha shows Marcus a photo that can prove Darryl was captured by the DHS. Realising he must stay and fight, Marcus steals Masha’s phone and escapes to the streets of San Francisco with Zeb. He sees that Barbara has printed his article, and before long, the DHS capture him.

Now back on Treasure Island, the true location of “Gitmo-by-the-Bay”, Marcus is about to receive gag-reflex torture when Barbara and a team of state troopers busts in and arrests the DHS. Barbara releases Marcus and they find Ange and Darryl.

Marcus and the rest of the DHS’s detainees are given fair court cases. Marcus is allowed bail in addition to a charge for stealing Masha’s phone. He is also sentenced to live in a halfway house for three months. Barbara Stratford creates an agency with the purpose of bringing justice to the DHS, which Marcus and his friends are a part of.

Great quotes from the novel

“Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is time-rich and cash-poor.” (page 87)

“I’m 17 years old. I’m not a straight-A student or anything. Even so, I figured out how to make an Internet that they can’t wiretap. I figured out how to jam their person-tracking technology. I can turn innocent people into suspects and turn guilty people into innocents in their eyes. I could get metal onto an airplane or beat a no-fly list. I figured this stuff out by looking at the web and by thinking about it. If I can do it, terrorists can do it. They told us they took away our freedom to make us safe. Do you feel safe?” (page 237-238)

“I can’t go underground for a year, ten years, my whole life, waiting for freedom to be handed to me. Freedom is something you have to take for yourself.” (page 334)

“It’s our goddamed city! It’s our goddamed country. No terrorist can take it from us for so long as we’re free. Once we’re not free, the terrorists win! Take it back! You’re young enough and stupid enough not to know that you can’t possibly win, so you’re the only ones who can lead us to victory! Take it back!” (page192)

“The opposite of esprit d’escalier is the way that life’s embarrassments come back to haunt us even after they’re long past. I could remember every stupid thing I’d ever said or done, recall them with picture-perfect clarity. Any time I was feeling low, I’d naturally start to remember other times I felt that way, a hit parade of humiliations coming one after another to my mind.” (page 294)

“I don’t know anything about press conferences.”
“Oh, just Google it. I’m sure someone’s written an article on holding a successful one. I mean, if the President can manage it, I’m sure you can. He looks like he can barely tie his shoes without help.” (page 230)

“Once we had gathered on the deck of the ferry, I saw that nearly everyone on Treasure Island had been one shade of brown or another.”  (page 352)

Government Surveillance

the strongest theme in the novel, in my humble opinion, and the one that represents the book’s message in the best manner is by far the theme of government surveillance. As previously discussed, Marcus and his peers are subject to a great dial of trial and torture, both when they are detained and when they are forced to go about their daily lives in compliance with the DHS’ constant observance. The same is the case in the novel 1984, what with Winston Smith being constantly bombarded with propaganda from his Oceania’s governing body-  in Little Brother, Marcus is exposed to the images of daily mass arrests and temporary taking of custody by DHS officials.

This is proved accurate in this segment of the novel: “’Let them hire a billion pigs and put a checkpoint on every corner… We’re jamming up the system because we hate Homeland Security, and because we love our city” (Doctorow, 139). The preceding excerpt depicted a passage in the book wherein a member of the Xnet called in to a local radio station and told the station what he thought of the DHS checkpoints. His view outlined the story Marcus told throughout the novel- the government had taken San Francisco security into its own hands and heavily occupied civilian territory. It also outlines the frustration and desperation most people in Marcus’s society had built up in the wake of Homeland Security’s intrusive actions. These actions are what triggered the mass revolt of the “Xnetters” and the ultimate termination of the DHS’s occupying of the city by the end of the novel.

Barbara Stratford

Friends, allies: Marcus Yallow, Drew Yallow, Lillian Yallow, Ron Glover, Angela Carvelli, Zeb

Known enemies: Department of Homeland Security, Carrie Johnstone

Barbara is a modern, feminist investigative reporter for The Guardian who is also a friend of Marcus’s parents. She helps Marcus get his story out and to shut down Gitmo-by-the-Bay.

Paranoia

The theme of paranoia is also prevalent in Little Brother. Most citizens of Cory Doctorow’s dystopian San Francisco are all constantly in fear of being arrested or detained- the exceptions being busybodies and whistle blowers. When Marcus creates the Xnet, he creates the system because he knows he is in danger of getting caught for his activist movements and his exposing the Department of Homeland Security. The same is the case for the other people who join his rally to overthrow the DHS in their city- they are protesting in the name of what is right, but they know that what they are doing is punishable, so they are always looking over their shoulders.

To further illustrate the existence of paranoia as a theme in Little Brother, one may look to the instance in the novel wherein Marcus, operating later on in the book under the screen name M1k3y, is asked to do interviews by several newspapers and radio shows- in response, he instructs them to log on to Xnet so he can host a press conference through one of the Xnet games. It is evident through this section of the book that Marcus does not want to be exposed as the leader of the underground movement, as he does not wish to face the consequences of his actions, even though he knew he was in the right. He takes these kinds of precautions because he is afraid, or paranoid, that the DHS will expose his true identity and his quest for justice will be put to an end.

Censorship

The theme of censorship plays a heavy role in the novel Little Brother. Many people are accustomed to reading books about censorship with regards to literature- this novel, however, discusses the somewhat undiscovered world of internet censorship. However, we can still draw a parallel between Little Brother and some great literary works in the past- an example with regards to censorship would be the novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which introduces the concept of a world without books. Although the form of censorship is very extreme in Ray Bradbury’s novel, Little Brother echoes its somewhat dystopian society.

After Marcus is tortured and interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security, he returns to San Francisco to find his home to be a virtual base for the DHS, and as he finds out later, the organization is tracking the internet usage of San Francisco citizens, and detaining them if they even come close to browsing pages on “controversial topics” such as security systems or communicating with large groups of people. Thus, their freedom of expression is limited, as they mightn’t feel comfortable having someone read their posts and view their history.

This is evident in the following excerpt from the book: “My technology was working for me, serving me, protecting me. It wasn’t spying on me” (Doctorow, 88). In the passage, Marcus is outlining the difference between the ParanoidXbox system he created and his regular computer, which is being monitored by the DHS. He also inadvertently points out what the DHS should be doing- working for him, and protecting him- rather than spying on him. This passage also shows that the only way Marcus truly feels comfortable about using the web is by creating his own undiscoverable system.

Setting

Little Brother is set in various places in San Francisco, but focuses mainly on the Mission District, where Marcus and most of his friends go to school. The specific area in San Francisco in which Marcus resides is actually called Potrero Hill, and his house is one of San Francisco’s storied “Painted Ladies”.

     

Marcus is also mentioned as a student of Cesar Chavez High, which automatically makes him one of the city’s most watched people. Chavez High has several gait recognition and classroom cameras.

Also, Little Brother is set in the somewhat near future- one can tell by the technology and hacks used such as the Xbox Universal and Paranoid Linux.


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