Cory Doctorow

Today, YA book group spoke with Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother. The conversation actually ended up being as much about politics as books, but if you’re read Little Brother, that probably won’t come as much of a surprise. Below, some selected quotes from the conversation (thanks to Cory for allowing me to re-print them; I have done minimal editing for the sake of comprehension and flow):

On reading and writing YA:
“My favorite author has always been Daniel Pinkwater, whose Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars may just be the perfect YA novel (though he also has a YA novel called Young Adult Novel that gives it a run for its money). However, I started writing YA after some of my writer pals got into it and showed me how much fun it could be — and how cool it was to have young readers, who engage with text in a way that adults rarely do, using it as both a guide to how the world works and something to argue with when it doesn’t match their views and experiences. The first one to help me see this was Kathe Koja, whom I got to know when she was writing “splatterpunk” graphic horror novels like THE CIPHER. She gave it up to write YA — actually let the horror books all go out of print, which I think is a real shame — and had nothing but good things to say about the experience (plus her fiction kicked 11 kinds of ass). Then my friends Justine Larbalastier and Scott Westerfeld (they’re married) started writing YA too, and they were clearly having a high old time at it — we stayed with them in Australia while I was passing through on a lecture tour on our way to Tokyo just as Justine was finishing up her second or third book, and we had all these great talks about what made YA fic work and how it was different from writing for adults.”

When we asked how writing YA is different than writing for adults, he linked to a recent essay he wrote for Locus Magazine (very good, definitely worth reading), and quoted from it:
“Writing for young people is really exciting. As one YA writer told me, “Adolescence is a series of brave, irreversible decisions.” One day, you’re someone who’s never told a lie of consequence; the next day you have, and you can never go back. One day, you’re someone who’s never done anything noble for a friend, the next day you have, and you can never go back. Is it any wonder that young people experience a camaraderie as intense as combat-buddies? Is it any wonder that the parts of our brain that govern risk-assessment don’t fully develop until adulthood? Who would take such brave chances, such existential risks, if she or he had a fully functional risk-assessment system? So young people live in a world characterized by intense drama, by choices wise and foolish and always brave. This is a book-plotter’s dream. Once you realize that your characters are living in this state of heightened consequence, every plot-point acquires moment and import that keeps the pages turning.

And also:
“Risk-taking behavior — including ill-advised social, sexual, and substance adventures — are characteristic of youth itself, so it’s natural that anything that co-occurs with youth, like SF or TV or video games, will carry the blame for them. However, the frightened and easily offended are doing a better job than they ever have of collapsing the horizons of young people, denying them the pleasures of gathering in public or online for fear of meteor-strike-rare lurid pedophile bogeymen, or on the pretense of fighting gangs or school shootings or some other tabloid horror. Literature may be the last escape available to young people today. It’s an honor to be writing for them.”

This is a long conversation, so I’ve posted the rest of it after the jump. Read on for his thoughts on Obama, American politics, and the three crucial things teens need to do if they still want to have rights when they become adults:

We also talked about, if part of the US became a Department of Homeland Security police state (the catalyst of Little Brother), teens could be a part of a rebellion against it. Cory answered and told us why:
“Indeed I do — as Trudy Doo says, ‘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!’ Look at the people who danced on the Berlin Wall — and the ones who brought it down with punk music, subversive zines, and a refusal to participate in the snitch state: kids, teens!”

This following bit is probably my favorite part of the conversation:
“There’s three crucial things you need to do if you want to still have rights when you become an adult:
1. Fix your technology so that it obeys you and not the other way around. Learn how to keep your email and other communications secret. Develop practices around Facebook, Bebo, Myspace, etc, that reflect the fact that your disclosures there will haunt you forever. Show your friends how to be private and secure, too.
2. Learn how to debate intelligently about security. Demand to know what happens when a system *fails* — not just what it’s supposed to do when it works. We wouldn’t accept a car that exploded at random intervals, no matter how good its gas mileage was. By the same token, we shouldn’t accept “anti-terrorist” surveillance and control systems that fail badly, by ensnaring innocent people in unjust circumstances. Learn how the math of rare events work — you can’t be secure until you know how to assess risk and you can’t do that without security. If we spend a trillion dollars to stop terrorists who kill *n* people/year, what other life-saving systems (food-banks, public health, road-ploughing, etc) do we starve of a trillion dollars, and is the number of people who die as a result larger than n?
3. Get involved in electoral politics. A country where NONE OF THE ABOVE is the most frequent winner of the presidential race is a country where politicians can safely ignore the voters, and style themselves as rulers, rather than leaders. If you don’t get involved in electoral politics, it will get involved with YOU. Every important electoral race in the history of the American democracy has relied on the principled, volunteer efforts of young people. You may not get a vote for the next president, but you’re going to inherit the country he forges, so you’d better start acting like it matters to you.”

As we were talking about youth and politics, Obama came up, and Cory had this to say:

“Yeah, though I’m incredibly bummed that he voted for expanded spying powers in the new FISA bill, which legalizes the practice of spying on all communications in America without a warrant. I don’t know how you can possibly square that with the Fourth Amendment (part of the Constitution which Obama and every other senator has sworn a solemn oath to uphold). For me, Obama just went from be best choice to the least-worst choice. (and here he inserted the text of the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”)

“I’m cool with him being a politician, I just think that this is *bad politics.* My friends on the Obama campaign tell me that Obama believed that crazy right-wing talk-show hosts would call him soft on terrorism if he didn’t vote for it. I don’t think that those people (or their listeners) were going to vote for him anyway. American politics is dominated by discouragement: “Sure, McCain isn’t your man, but jeesh, look how bad Obama is. Can you really hold your nose and vote for him? Better to just stay home and avoid it altogether.” (Or in reverse, if it’s a Dem speaking). It works — every year, fewer and fewer people vote, and NONE OF THE ABOVE wins again. If Obama wants to motivate all those NONE OF THE ABOVErs to vote for him, he should act like the Constitution matters.”

Getting back to the book, we asked, do you think that a Little Brother-type situation could happen under McCain? Obama?
“Hmm — I’m inclined to think that either one could get us there. The “anti-terror” institutions have their own logic and inertia, and once they’re in place, we can’t just tear them down or take away their power. Look at all the different agencies the DHS has absorbed now — if you pulled the plug on it, you’d lose cohesion in dozens of crucial agencies and you’d be in DEEP trouble if something bad happened. Taking apart the DHS is going to be like defusing a bomb (or demobilizing the Iraqi army — and look how that turned out when we blew it).”

Another question revolved around how teens who are motivated by this book and other activism to engage their friends, who seem disinterested. Cory said:
“It all starts with being involved yourself. Nothing is so convincing as genuine passion and engagement. You tell your friends that they need to get involved, but why should they believe you until YOU are? And you don’t need to mobilize ALL your friends: if you convince one person that this stuff matters, you’ve doubled the size of your coalition from one person to two. You build a house one brick at a time.”

Before he left to go pick up the cutest baby ever from daycare, we asked him about upcoming YA projects, which sound just as interesting as Little Brother:
“The next one will be called For The Win and it’s about kids who work in sweatshops in China, India and the US who organize using multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, forming a global union modelled on the Industrial Workers of the World from the 1910s. This is for some time in 2010. And after that, a book called Pirate Cinema about anarchist squatter types in London who declare war on the entertainment industry and use piracy to systematically destroy Hollywood, before it destroys the Internet. And in the meantime, I’ve just had a collection of six comics based on my short stories publishes, called Cory Doctorow’s Futuristic Tales of the Here and Now. In September, Tachyon Books is publishing a collection of my essays, called Content. Like Little Brother, it’s all Creative Commons and freely downloadable, so you can try before you buy and email copies to friends if you think they’d enjoy it.”

Thanks again to Cory for taking time out to talk with the group, and to everybody reading this: if you haven’t read Little Brother yet, do! Thanks to his publisher, I have a few signed bookplates left, so if you buy the book from my store, I will give you one, while supplies last.

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