Attack Surface: All too scarily plausible

Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAttack Surface by Cory Doctorow science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAttack Surface by Cory Doctorow

Attack Surface is Cory Doctorow’s newest book in a loose series that begins with Little Brother, though one needn’t have read the other two (thus “loose”) to follow and enjoy this one. It’s a taut techno-thriller, though I’ll admit to glazing over at times in long sections of techno-speak.

The novel is two-stranded. In current time, Masha is a computer security expert working for a transnational company who sell their services — hacking, surveillance, tech manipulation and control, etc. — to anybody willing to pay with no attempt to distinguish any of their clients’ morality/ethics. Which is why we first find Masha helping an old Soviet-satellite country’s dictator surveil and jail those annoying protestors who want some actual freedom. Masha, though, isn’t quite as amoral as her company, and so while she’s helping the bad guys she’s also teaching the resistance what they can (and can’t do) about the totalitarian regime’s surveillance of them. She calls this compartmentalizing, and it conveniently allows her to get well-paid and do what she wants because her good deeds “balance out” her more problematic actions. When things go horrifically awry overseas (in a terrifyingly all-too-plausible scenario), she returns to the States and helps an old friend Tanisha with her own form of resistance — the Black-Brown Alliance, a sort of descendant of BLM — which is being surveilled and undermined by local law enforcement and another transnational security company.

Meanwhile, the second strand shows us how Masha got to that time that opens the novel, tracing her journey from high-school hacker (“When I was thirteen, I’d figured out how to get into the voicemails of all my school friends”) to highly-paid private computer expert and the moral compromises she makes on the way.

Masha’s a complex character, not always likable (by either those around her or the reader) and her actions and thoughts can be at various times frustrating, annoying, repulsive, infuriating, and rewarding. That last word can apply to the reader’s journey with her as well. The plot is all too topical, unfortunately, both in its portrayal of the overseas plotline (Hong Kong will come quickly to mind), the surveillance of the post-BLM movement, and the post-government power of transnational corporations and their allegiance to naught but themselves and their profits. The other characters aren’t as compelling, but are strongly portrayed, with Marcus (a main character in Little Brother) a nice foil to Masha in that he’s far less self-aware (Masha doesn’t lie to herself) and while he does the on-the-surface “good thing” he too often doesn’t consider the possible downside of his actions..

My one issue with Attack Surface is that it at times is too expositive for long sections (I wrote “exposition heavy” several times in my notes), and, as noted in my intro, I went into a daze more than a few times with the techno-jargon. It’s well done, and it’ll surely scare the hell out of you (and if you think Doctorow is grossly over-exaggerating make sure to read the afterword), but I’m not sure its length, density, detail, and frequency were all that necessary. Then again, it certainly adds to the authenticity and makes his point.

That aside, Attack Surface is a tightly written, fast-moving story with a social consciousness whose “speculative” element is all too likely. Recommended.

Published in October 2020. Cory Doctorow’s Attack Surface is a standalone novel set in the world of New York Times bestsellers Little Brother and Homeland. Most days, Masha Maximow was sure she’d chosen the winning side. In her day job as a counterterrorism wizard for an transnational cybersecurity firm, she made the hacks that allowed repressive regimes to spy on dissidents, and manipulate their every move. The perks were fantastic, and the pay was obscene. Just for fun, and to piss off her masters, Masha sometimes used her mad skills to help those same troublemakers evade detection, if their cause was just. It was a dangerous game and a hell of a rush. But seriously self-destructive. And unsustainable. When her targets were strangers in faraway police states, it was easy to compartmentalize, to ignore the collateral damage of murder, rape, and torture. But when it hits close to home, and the hacks and exploits she’s devised are directed at her friends and family–including boy wonder Marcus Yallow, her old crush and archrival, and his entourage of naïve idealists–Masha realizes she has to choose. And whatever choice she makes, someone is going to get hurt.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. I don’t literally mean “compare” but for lack of a better word, how does it compare to William Gibson? I sense a few themes in common.

    • similar themes for sure, though I think Doctorow is more narrowly focused and has a more direct/blunt “warning” mode. I’d say he also isn’t as elegant a writer as Gibson and employs more technospeak. He’s a fien writer, just a bit more straightforward I’d say

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