Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow Book Review

There must be authors like Cory Doctorow out there, but I definitely haven’t read any of them in my nearly ten years being a book reviewer. I guess the closest one to resemble him would be Ernest Cline. Both of them clearly love to show off how genius they are at their passions; Cline with ancient pop culture and video games, Doctorow with programming and hacking.

A few years ago, I picked up and sped through Doctorow’s 2008 novel Little Brother. It was about a teenager named Marcus Yallow who was, you guessed it, a genius in computer programming, and what started off as tricking his school ID into letting him cut class turned into him taking on the entire police department of San Francisco when there was a bombing of the Bay Bridge, and he was tortured as a suspect and found the military was using the chaos as an excuse to turn this into a state where everyone’s rights were taken away. (Sadly, some can try to paint this storyline today as an example of government tyranny when COVID spread, but there is no comparison at all to the two situations. Our governments needed to create and enforce regulations so that we wouldn’t end up killing each other until we found a way to fight back against the virus. I potentially had an early version of the virus in December 2019, and I was coughing phlegm and incredibly sick for two weeks. I know a lot of people would not have been able to handle worse than what I had, especially the elderly. Countries like the U.S. and Brazil which had a vast amount of people who refused to cooperate had an enormous amount of deaths, especially per capita. The vaccines made it so we’d be as safe, as protected as we could be, and its success is the sole reason restrictions are now practically over.)

Little Brother was about how a higher power was capitalizing on a terrorist attack and using it as an excuse to permanently demolish people’s free will, and it was a book grounded in both incredible technology rebellion action and consequences having to be fought. While reading this book, I actually laughed evilly. You know, “Mwahahahaha.” I felt like I’d been given access to the secrets of our computers and with this knowledge I could cheat and get away with any crime I wanted. I honestly love books that display ordinary people using their knowledge and bravery to rock the world. Close to real-life superheroes, you know? Like Bernie Sanders! I gave the book my highest grade. Naturally I quickly picked up the sequel Homeland. And I actually gave a negative review to that book in the end because I felt it was more of a bummer of a story, Marcus struggling with basic life and having to accept sometimes goals do not come true. But here’s where all of this is going. In this series, one minor character was an outsider called Masha Maximow. She tried to help Marcus get away from the chaos he had caused and was a little forceful on her belief he needed to abandon everyone, but he managed to break her hand, steal her phone and get away. Twelve years since that happened, we now have a book with this Masha’s point of view.

Masha is a very different character from Marcus. Let’s reference the Myers-Briggs personality test, shall we? Whereas Marcus had an ENFP sort of determination and imagination, Masha is an ISTP-esque realist and outcast. On maybe even a higher level of programming than Marcus ever was, Masha has been across the world working for corrupt billion-dollar tech institutions, not like Windows or Google but more anonymous ones like those with the names Xoth and Zyz. We first learn Masha is working in some Russian country she anonymously calls Slovstakia. It’s not a real name. Lots of Boris’s, lots of Nazis. And she’s not exactly working with her friend Kriztina, who’s trying to stop a government bent on taking away her humanitarian rights in the place she’s grown up in. Rather, we find Masha is often doing contract work for the people hoping to put their spyware into the network, and she makes big bucks flying around the country, including into warzones like Iraq and then pleasure paradises the next week. She occasionally secretly stops some people just trying to do the right thing from getting caught, but she’s mostly the enemy of the people she sympathizes with. And one of her bosses is the same woman who once tortured and terrorized Marcus, Carrie Johnstone.

Little Brother and Homeland were suitably in the teen section, but Attack Surface? Draws a fine line between teen and adult, because as I said, Marcus, the protagonist of the first two books, was full of hope and wanted things changed, and Masha is giving us a view of someone who doesn’t have hope and clings to worst-case scenarios as an excuse for avoiding the idea of hope, creating an atmosphere more suited to an adult book. Masha is under the thumb of her fear of what she thinks is fact but she mistakes for fear. Because of this hesitation, rather than another techno-geek rebellion book we get more of a tech-underworld book, and it’s one that nonetheless had me flipping the pages.

The best parts of Attack Surface are when Marcus and Ange are with us, or Masha’s Black-Brown Alliance Leader friend Tanisha. Now in their 30s they haven’t lost their touch, and whenever they come into the picture to inject some fun and slight arrogance into the story, we realize a look from Masha’s point of view, from the other side of the network war if you will, was a clever idea to expand Cory Doctorow’s fourteen-year-old dystopian world. Throughout the book, we’re treated to Masha getting new lines of work and always having Marcus or Tanisha or Kriztina in the back of her mind, wondering if she’ll ever turn against those that have the ability to locate her wherever she is in the world and kill her innocent, lonely, non-technological mother. Like its predecessors, the book has a smart-aleck fact about the possibilities, dangers, insecurities and loopholes of our modern technology, and this time they’re presented in mostly less opportune forms, but we realize this is not just the story of companies trying to fund technology that would wipe out those who don’t want to live in a 1984-esque world, but the story of Masha learning to hope, to dream, to say “what if”. And even if it takes its time, its end result is satisfying, especially for those who felt Homeland ended on a bit of a limbo and an unsatisfactory ending with the antagonist.

Attack Surface is a heavy-handed read, and it’s sometimes not exactly fun. I’d say it’s strictly for those who have found they’re fans of Cory Doctorow’s work. Fortunately for me and my rating, I’m one of those people.

If you like this, I’d try Cory Doctorow’s other books and Ready, Player, One by Ernest Cline, both the book and the movie

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