Shelf Talk(s) with Cory Doctorow, pt. 1

Cory Doctorow is coming to Seattle this weekend, on tour to promote his latest book – Little Brother – a smart dystopic thriller aimed at young adults, but with something to say to everyone. (Comparisons are odious, but if Gene Shalit were here he might say 1984 meets Catcher in the Rye. I’d add in Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp.) He’ll be appearing at the library’s Ballard Branch this Sunday at 2 p.m (in collaboration with our good friends at the Secret Garden Bookshop). Of all the great things that have been said about Little Brother, here’s a bit from Neil Gaiman: “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…”

If you’re unfamiliar with Doctorow, popular editor and blogger at, author and outspoken advocate for intellectual freedom and the creative commons movement, a few hours spent surfing through his prolific work and thought may change your life too, or at least the way you view your rights to information, to privacy, and to making a contribution to this world. It is also a bracing tonic for the mind: Doctorow’s range of interests – from hacks to cool gadgets to public policy – are head-spinning.  I had a chance to talk with Cory the other day, and wanted to share some of what he said.

Q: Little Brother seems to bring together a lot of your diverse interests in one place. When did you know this was going to be a book for younger readers?

It was absolutely conceived of as a young adult book… I had friends who went and done successful – artistically, commercially – young adult books… and they really sold me on the idea that it was just a lot of fun, and that particularly that writing for young people was satisfying because mostly adults read to be entertained, and mostly young adults read not only to be entertained but to find out how the world works, so they read really differently, and there’s something satisfying about the kind of pleasure that you can give to a young person with a book that really hits for them, and so I was really excited about doing that. … and I never stopped reading young adult fiction. I’ve always really admired the genre…

I came up with (the idea for Little Brother) one night after dinner as we were walking back from a restaurant, and we’d just seen a movie and I started talking with my wife about how frustrating it was that all the science fiction movies that we saw – the techno-thrillers that we saw – were egregiously stupid about the technology. For a genre with ‘techno’ in its name, the techno-thriller tends to get everything that its possible to get wrong wrong about technology for no good reason at all. …the computers that beep every time you press a key. Don’t these people type?… So I thought wouldn’t it be great to write a piece as tensely plotted as any techno-thriller, but in which the technology was absolutely rigorous, …there was nothing in it that wasn’t strictly speaking possible. And that combined with this idea I’ve been knocking around for a young adult novel; we’d just found out that we were pregnant, so some of the concerns we had about raising a kid in a world in which there was going to be increased surveillance – in which kids in particular were going to be subject to more control in the name of keeping them safe from threats that really occur one in a bazillion times, like being attacked by strangers. Statistically, a kid who’s attacked is almost certain to have been attacked by a friend or a relative, but we spend all our energy worrying about the meteor-strike rare occurrence of a kid being attacked by a stranger…

Q: Anti-authoritarianism is nothing new to young adult literature, and yet it seems like yours is perhaps a more mature version of what gets too easily labeled or dismissed as mere teen rebellion.

I think authoritarianism has two core tenets. The first one is that you can be made more secure by living in a society with more control. And that’s something that we can have a legitimate security debate about; I disagree with that tenet. But the other essential tenet of authoritarianism is that there’s one set of rules for the people who make rules, and there’s another set of rules for the people who follow rules. If you are surrounded by little cctv cameras, the more cctv cameras there are trained on you the greater the likelihood that if you take out your own camera and start snapping pictures of them, that someone will come along and threaten you with arrest, right? We’re already up to the maximal cctv universe, which is going through customs, and really the message there is that the cameras are there to watch you, that you’re not there to watch the cameras. …So we inhabit a world in which there really is a class of people who believe that they should set rules but not follow them, and I think that the core of a democratic system that follows the rule of law – that what the rule of law really means is that there’s one set of rules for everyone. …I think that the authoritarianism that they fight back against in the book superficially is about this control premise, but more importantly its about this dual standard for control, for rule making. That double standard is fundamentally what the American revolution was fought over.

Q: Yet this paternalism is reflective in many ways of the parent/child situation that a lot of teen rebellion books deal with. There are interesting paralells.

I think you’re right. I think that the authoritarian regimes that we submit to, and not just kids but anyone who doesn’t feel they can answer back, or act as though they can change things, that stuff tends to be a kind of dry run for greater systems of control in society at large. So, we start with little radio ID locator cuffs for mental patients who are confused and prone to wandering, you don’t want the walking off the ward. We expanded that system into cuffs for parolees. Now many school boards in Texas have just rolled out these cuffs for students who are habitually truant. On the other end we’re rolling out this kind of thing for drivers anywhere that we have these tag-based toll devices drivers are continuously identified as they move through time and space … So you know we started by testing this stuff out on mental patients and we moved up prisoners and then up to kids and now we’re doing it to adults.

I’ll post some more Doctorow soon, but don’t miss your chance to meet the guy, read his books, or hear him talk.  Our conversation continues here.

2 thoughts on “Shelf Talk(s) with Cory Doctorow, pt. 1”

  1. That was fascinating, thank you. I’m glad for the reminder that young adult books are far more complex than we might remember.

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