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.