Attack Surface

Word Wednesday: ‘Attack Surface’ by Cory Doctorow

Books Columns Reviews Word Wednesday

This Week’s Word Is “Surveillance.” 

September/October has not been a good couple of fiction months for me. I’m not sure why, but I’m struggling to find books that hold my attention. Having slogged through 600 pages of a science fiction debut from a well-known fantasy author, I gave up 2/3 of the way through, feeling I’d given it a fair crack of the whip. Whilst reading that book, I learned that Cory Doctorow had a new follow-up book to Little Brother. Would Attack Surface reignite my reading passion?

What is Attack Surface?

Before talking about Attack Surface it’s probably worth talking about Cory and Little Brother first. I read and reviewed Little Brother when it first came out, and I was blown away. I hadn’t heard of Cory Doctorow at the time, but Little Brother put him firmly on my radar. I remember two things about reading it. One, that it made me feel old; the heroes in the book decry anybody over the age of 25 as being obsolete (I was mid-thirties at the time) and two, it made me reaIize how naive I was about technology. I had no idea what the surveillance state was capable of. Little Brother was obviously biased in its outlook, but it’s a strong, powerful novel, that justified the echoes of Orwell alluded to in its title. 

Cory Doctorow, as it says on his Wikipedia page, “is a Canadian-British blogger, journalist, and science fiction author who served as co-editor of the blog Boing Boing. He is an activist in favour of liberalising copyright laws and a proponent of the Creative Commons organization, using some of their licenses for his books. Some common themes of his work include digital rights management, file sharing, and post-scarcity economics.”

Doctorow is still a strong believer in creative commons and the perils of DRM, so much so, he launched a campaign to produce a DRM free version of Attack Surface, on Kickstarter.

Being a middle of the road, stay at home dad, whose most difficult daily dilemma tends to be whether I should walk or use the car on the school run, much of what Doctorow writes about tends to pass me by. It’s only by reading his novels, that I’ve gleaned some understanding of the scope of the technological economy and the depth and breadth of cybersecurity, for good and ill. I spend much of my time reading his novels, thinking “Do people really do that?”

The answer is more often than not, “Yes, they really do.”

Attack Surface is the third in a loose trilogy of “Little Brother” books. Along with Homeland, the three books share a common theme and some common characters. All three novels stand up in their own right, but it’s definitely worth reading them in order if you can. 

This novel follows Masha, a character who features in Little Brother, largely as an antagonist, I believe (I can no longer remember the specifics of the LB story). She is a counterpoint to the Anonymous style hacktivists that inhabit many of Doctorow’s stories. During and after the events of Little Brother she felt compelled to work for the government and their contractors; hacking for the state. As the novel opens Masha is playing both sides. Her employer has her working for a post-Soviet state government, whilst in her free time, Masha is handing out hacker advice to opponents of the regime.

Needless to say, none of this goes well. 

Mahsa returns home to San Fransisco, where she attempts to help an old friend who is working for a campaign group that is a descendant of Black Lives Matter (The Little Brother books are set in the near future. The lines between what is fact and what is science fiction are blurred in Attack Surface. Or at least they were for this techno-duffer.) Tanisha, one of Masha’s few friends discovers her phone has compromised by the authorities, using dubious methods. She asks Masha for help in working out what has happened and how to keep herself clear of prying eyes. 

What follows is a cautionary tale regarding mass surveillance and our reliance on technology. 

Why Read Attack Surface?

Cory Doctorow always suffers a problem which is that they have to be measured against Little Brother; a truly thought-provoking and thrilling book. It effortlessly melds action, politics, and technology into a marvelous whole. That’s a hard thing to do. To write one book in a lifetime as good as Little Brother is a fantastic achievement. To write two is probably impossible.

I’ve read at least 4 other Doctorow books and they all struggle (for me at least) to get the triangle of action-politics-technology right. To be clear, none of them are bad books, but where Little Brother can be enjoyed by all, the others, including Attack Surface, probably require that you have a desire to read a book about technology. Attack Surface is tech-heavy, and it squashes the story. None of this tech is particularly hard to understand, the issue is, as Masha suggests at one point, being ultra-secure is rigorous, continuous, and not very exciting. 

Having said that, if you are interested in technology, want to know the frailties of your phone, and, more particularly, want to know how governments and corporations use and abuse your data, Doctorow books are second to none. Attack Surface is like having your eyes opened with a potato peeler. In a good way. 

This is real and this is painful. The ways in which data is interrogated and manipulated is terrifying, yet the overreaching arc of Attack Surface is a hopeful one. Without giving too much away, the war against surveillance is probably unwinnable, but perhaps it’s possible to shift the rules of engagement. 

The characterization in the book is strong. Doctorow depicts his characters well, especially his geeky, driven ones. There are heroes and villains in this piece but some have more blurred lines than others. I loved the character interactions in the book and Masha’s internal monologue is fascinating. 

It did take me quite a long time to read Attack Surface but as I said at the top of the review, I’m struggling with reading attention right now. The book is most definitely interesting, but I didn’t find it captivating. Little Brother demanded to be read, demanded to be finished. Attack Surface is intellectually rigorous but won’t leave you hanging out for more. 

Having said all that, Little Brother, Homeland, and Attack Surface are three vitally important novels. Nobody describes how the system works against us quite like Cory Doctorow does. 

If you want to pick up a copy of Attack Surface you can do so here, in the US and here, in the UK. 

GeekDad has lots of Cory Doctorow reviews, check them out, here. 

Disclosure: I received a copy of Attack Surface in order to write this review. The link is an affiliate link. 


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