Sunday 31 May 2020

Attack Surface: A Novel For Today

After the events of a weekend in which waves of violence overtook American streets, I find myself wishing that Cory Doctorow’s upcoming novel Attack Surface were already available.

It’s a novel that is perfectly suited to inform national dialogues about police violence, how
A photograph from today's Detroit
Free Press
could have been pulled
straight out of Cory Doctorow's new book. 
technology can undermine or promote human freedom, and how members of the dominant culture can be allies in combating injustices committed against marginalized groups.

Picking up a decade after the events of Doctorow's Hugo-shortlisted novel Little Brother, this new book follows the career of Masha Maximow, the hacker/programmer who showed up briefly in previous stories.

As an anti-hero protagonist working for private security firms, Maximow's loyalties are split between the well-funded realpolitik employers that let her live in luxury, and the idealistic friends and allies she helps in secret. This makes for interesting internal character tensions, as well as opportunities for Doctorow to delve into the details of computer security and encryption.

One of Doctorow’s strengths as a writer is his ability to tackle complex real-world computer security issues with a depth of knowledge, while making the subject accessible to lay readers. He also makes it evident why the subject — and the nuances he's describing — are of immediate relevance to the plot.

Where the book stumbles is when Maximow reconnects with her former antagonist and ally Marcus Yallow, who was the protagonist of Doctorow’s previous novels Little Brother and Homeland. Yallow’s wide-eyed techno-utopianism feels at-odds with the more pragmatic worldview that has informed Maximow’s life for the majority of the book. Maximow’s subsequent road to Damascus moment is unconvincing at best. This tonal confusion may in part be explained by the unusual placement of Attack Surface as a novel for adults that is a continuation of a story set by two YA novels.

Major portions of Attack Surface are spent in protest scenes that are nearly identical to those plastered
Attack Surface will be
released on October 18,
2020. It could not be
more timely today.
(Image via MacMillan)
across every news station in the U.S.A. right now, and Doctorow captures the hope, the fear, and the confusion of these types of events. Any reader who has participated in a protest that was targeted by the police will recognize that Doctorow is clearly writing from experience.

Some of the police tactics that Doctorow describes — including kettling, deliberate provocations, and cell phone jamming — have been on display over the past few days. The ways in which the protagonists of Attack Surface circumvent those tactics are not always as effective as Doctorow describes, but the novel still provides a good crash course in some forms of effective protest management.

Given the events of this past weekend, I wonder if Doctorow underestimated the willingness of American police officers to act with unmitigated violence, and if he overestimated the judicial system’s ability to hold those police officers accountable.

Despite the ways in which Doctorow depicts omnipresent surveillance, privatized military being turned against citizens, and corporate corrosion of democratic accountability, Attack Surface is at its heart a hopeful novel. This is a story in which protests work and in which individual actors are able to affect change for the better. I am not sure that I found that believable, but at this present moment many readers might need something hopeful.

Attack Surface is a vital and necessary contribution to the public discourse. Doctorow is extremely talented at diagnosing potential problems with new technologies being used to subvert human freedom, even when the resolution to the story he tells might ring hollow.

I wish it were available now, rather than being released in October. 

Sunday 24 May 2020

The Astounding Award

Most Worldcon attendees are likely to be familiar with the long list of megastars for whom the Astounding Award (formerly the John W. Campbell Award) has been amongst the first of many honours they’ve received in long careers: Jerry Pournelle, Ted Chiang, Nalo Hopkinson, Jo Walton, Cory Doctorow, and Mary Robinette Kowal to name a few.

These authors continue to benefit from the promotion of publishers who profit from their works … but there is little economic incentive for publishers to continue promoting the works of lesser-known writers who are not producing new works. In some ways, the Astounding Award helps fill this need.

Reviewing the list of Astounding Award finalists and winners makes it clear that part of the joy and value of this award is that it can help new generations of readers find works by creators whose careers never soared to Scalzian heights, or whose years of writing were few in number.

Raphael Carter was shortlisted for the Astounding Award in 1997 and 1998 on the strength of 
Raphael Carter has only
published one novel.
But one great novel matters.
(Image via Wikipedia)
zirs cyberpunk novel The Fortunate Fall. If not for seeing zir listed on the Astounding Award shortlist, I might never have read — and enjoyed — this book. Carter never wrote another novel, and as far as I can tell is credited with just one short story.

The Fortunate Fall is a rich text that was ahead of its time. It’s prescient tackling of gender politics, as well as themes of surveillance would only become more important as a point of discussion in the decade after it was published. The fact that it helped earn Carter an Astounding Award nod helps the novel find new audiences, and maintains the integrity of its enduring value.

But Carter is not the only example of why the Astounding Award, and the similar Locus Award For Best First Book, are so important to the genre.

It has been 20 years since the fourth — and most recent — novel by Michaela Roessner hit the shelves. It has been almost a decade since her most recent short story. But The Stars Dispose remains an excellent fantasy that continues to find new readers through her Astounding nomination. Paul Melko hasn’t published so much as a short story since 2012, but his three novels (Singularity’s Ring, The Walls Of The Universe, and The Broken Universe) will find new readers through his Locus award. I'd highly recommend the parallel-world-hopping fun of The Walls Of The Universe.

The fact that Melko, Roessner and Carter do not seem to be publishing new books or stories anymore does not diminish in any way the depth of their talent, or the worthiness of their existing works. But it would, unfortunately, have made it significantly less likely that they will find new readers if awards like the Astounding didn’t exist.

Whatever these authors are up to now, I sincerely hope that they are doing well, and that they are proud of the fact that their books continue to connect with readers.

But the Astounding Award also reminds us to celebrate authors whose careers were cut short.

Carrie Richerson, who died last year, was twice nominated for the Astounding in 1993 and 1994 on
Carrie Richerson at the World
Fantasy Convention in 2006.
(photo by Scott Zrubek)
the strength of her short fiction. The Astounding helps ensure that we won’t forget her debut story Apotheosis.

David Feintuch won the Astounding in 1996 for his Seafort Saga books, which are largely out of print now, but fans of Horatio Hornblower novels would do well to seek them out. The Astounding may help keep his memory alive.

Awards for best first book, or for new writers are often seen as a jumping-off point, or a way to promote the career of an emerging artist. But seen in retrospect, I’d argue that these awards provide even more value by reminding us of great works that might otherwise have been forgotten.

Monday 11 May 2020

Gideon The Ninth - review

Exuberant, quirky, and occasionally goofy, Tamsien Muir’s uneven debut novel is elevated by singular world building and an engaging primary narrator.

Introducing us to an ancient, decaying nine-world civilization, Gideon The Ninth follows the title character’s journey from her miserable, frozen and depopulated homeworld on the edge of the solar system to Canaan House, the central palace at the heart of the empire. Partnered with her hated childhood rival Harrow, Gideon represents her world in a series of trials.
Protagonist Gideon
Nonagesimus is an
extraordinary swordsman
who wears sunglasses.
(Image via

The location is as integral to the novel as any of the characters: Canaan House is a massive, sprawling castle complex filled with antediluvian secret chambers, cyclopean tombs, labyrinthine passages, and crumbling architecture. It is a castle with a personality all its own, and may be one of the most well-developed characters in the novel. It reminded some of us of a YA Gormenghast.

The book is poised in that liminal zone between the fantastic and the science fictional. Details of how the world works are peppered organically through the story, without excessive elaboration about why, or how: magic (but only necromancy) is in common use, spaceships flit between distant worlds, the civilization is ruled by arcane and ancient noble houses, mirrored sunglasses are rare but obtainable. Nothing about the setting makes sense, and yet it all seems to work.

An interesting aspect of this world building is that although the magic is limited to various iterations of necromancy (raising the dead), it has been around long enough for civilization to have found every conceivable use for it. This is one of the most interestingly imagined magical systems in recent memory.

The prose may be somewhat rococo for the tastes of some readers, but it would be difficult to deny the skill that’s evident in the sentence structure, and the depth of descriptive detail. It has often been observed that the classic gothic horror novel is usually about a woman who moves to a house, where the otherworldly contents try to harm her. Both in terms of style and content, Gideon The Ninth falls into this tradition.

The book’s momentum is propelled by Gideon’s irreverent, quippy first-person narration, filled with bravado and ribald jokes. This type of cooler-than-cool, hipper-than-hip protagonist may be somewhat of a cliche in genre fiction, but Muir manages to make the trope feel fresh.

Through flashbacks and Gideon’s internal monologue, readers learn about her long problematic
Tamsyn Muir's debut novel
is filled to the brim with strange
and wondrous imagination.
(Image via Wikipedia)
relationship with Harrow, the heir to the throne of the House of the Ninth, and the person most responsible for hijacking Gideon’s life. Because they’re forced to ally with each other during the trials they face, they quickly grow closer, and eventually develop an intimate relationship.

This frenemy/codependency slowly becomes the heart of the novel, albeit an exceptionally problematic one. Gideon has very little agency in her decision-making. She’s essentially bound into servitude, frog-marched into her role as the Ninth House’s representative in the trials, and thrown into grave danger, with her freedom dangled as a potential reward. The power dynamics between Gideon and her oppressor are uncomfortable, as Harrow treats her with little respect. Some of us were uncomfortable with the abusive nature of this central relationship. 

Although a sequel is already available, even those of us who were enthusiastic in our appreciation of the novel wondered whether a follow-up is necessary. The book seems complete in and of itself, and further exploration of this bizarre and beautiful world may only serve to diminish the vast, unknowable mystery.

Despite these issues, Gideon The Ninth is a memorable, well-crafted, and worthy Hugo nominee that will end up fairly high on our ballots. We will be very interested to see what other strange and arcane worlds Tamsyn Muir will take us to next.