© 2020 Cory Doctorow
When the Bay Bridge blew up, Masha wanted to catch the guys that did it. That desire for justice and revenge brought her to employment with the Department of Homeland Security, and still later a private security contractor busily creating tools and methods to make every bit of digital communication happening between targets open to collection, analysis, and manipulation. But before she knew it, Masha and her coworkers were enabling some of the worst governments in history to harass and destroy those who would protest for their rights. As her conscience begins making itself known, Masha struggles to find a way to absolve her guilt — by passing on tips for opsec to the resistance, for instance. But no man or woman can serve two masters, and ultimately Masha has to choose. Attack Surface is very nearly a great novel of redemption; as it stands, it is merely a cool one, a good one.
When I first read Little Brother, the novel that created the storyline that Attack Surface is set in, I thought: this is cool as hell. Doctorow combined the excitement of a “man vs the police state” novel with modern cybersecurity tools from his main character that apply equally in our world; the novels are educational thrillers, calling the reader to start covering their digital tales from corporate and government surveillance. Attack Surface is thoroughly in that line, but this time we’re on the other side — viewing citizens from the perspective of the hunter-coder, who spends their time figuring out what thread of our lives they can invent a tool to grab hold of, what they can expose and use to achieve their goals of total control. We see this world through Masha, a lamentably insecure young woman who admires the Fierce Strong Women she works for, even if one of them does remind her of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS; she admires their strength, even though it comes from the expense of others, and no doubt enjoys the high she gets from seeing other’s lives unfold before her, opened at her bidding through tools of her own creations. Ultimately, that high is no match for the self doubt, the conviction that she’s helping evil — and one wonders where Masha would be without her friend Tanisha, a professional activist who constantly calls Masha on her compromises.
As stirring as Masha’s interior struggle is, her insecurity makes her an incredibly difficult person to enjoy spending time with — unfortunate, because she’s the only viewpoint character. She is constantly miserable, unless she’s drunk or power-tripping, and she lives her life in constant judgement of others, including her friends. It may be purposeful characterization, or just Doctorow’s own harpyness; it’s been too long since I read any of his other fiction to say with confidence. Masha’s ‘good’ friends aren’t any more enjoyable to hang around with: they’re all woke ideologues, and political posturing dominates their time when hipster fashion and food trends cease to amuse them; none of them seem to enjoy anything, beyond complaining and marching in the streets against the cops. Now, as obnoxious libertarian, I’m no stranger to idealistic conviction or raging against the state : I do it devotedly, but it doesn’t consume my life the way it does for these characters. Frankly, the entire book seems to be full of anhedonics.
Often cool, often obnoxious: Attack Surface is a strange mix of the sweet and sour. However, it does have the reccommendation of Edward Snowden, so — if in doubt, give it a whirl.
He had been living a double life: Snowden the tech helped build the security state, and Ed the user valued his privacy to the point of using Tor for regular browsing. Now, increasingly, Ed couldn’t countenance the realities of the work he’d been doing. At first he tried to rebel by simply spreading the word about the need for protecting privacy, in general, or by giving people the tools and knowledge to bypass surveillance in countries hostile to free expression, like Iranians subjected to the role of the ayatollahs, he eventually decided that the most effective way of fighting back was to reveal what was being built.From my review of Permanent Record, Edward Snowden