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. 

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