Maya C. James and Gary K. Wolfe Review Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow

Attack Surface, Cory Doctorow (Tor 978-1-250-75753-1, $26.99, 384pp, hc) October 2020.

Privacy is a luxury in Cory Doctorow’s Attack Surface, a political technothriller that follows the questionable choices of former spy, gov­ernment operative, and traitor, Masha Maximow, as she builds cyberweapons for authoritarian govern­ments, greedy cyber firms, and progressive activists alike. Taking place a few years after the events of Little Brother and Homeland, this standalone novel yanks readers through Masha’s turbulent life in a series of alternating flashbacks and present-day dilemmas. Masha serves as a slightly unreliable nar­rator. Her snarky and (sometimes) cringey first-person point of view conveys Doctorow’s unsettlingly realist perspective on surveillance and internet freedom quite well.

The surprising things about this book are its heavy-handed technical descriptions and its willingness to confront present-day political events. The stakes are high and even more personal because they directly relate to current American and Eastern European politics. Black Lives Matter protests and other upris­ings closely mirror, if not exactly resemble, protests that are shaking countries down across the globe. San Francisco, perhaps the most milquetoast city in which I can imagine an uprising, becomes a shock­ingly violent and political space where Masha makes a difficult, imperfect choice.

In Attack Surface, Doctorow narrowly avoids the convenient boogeyman of evil corporations and mili­tary generals. Don’t get me wrong: they’re still pres­ent in the form of your typical perfectly manicured, white, and terrifying “Ice Queen.” However, many of the villains in these stories are the “techies” that employ facial-recognition software on activists, or cooperate with ICE and violent police departments. Sometimes they’re the silent bystanders who watch as their fellow citizens are steamrolled by brutal police crackdowns.

Doctorow has his finger on the pulse of ethical technology use and data privacy – the research he has put into this project is astounding, but his knowledge of this technology’s real-world impact impresses me the most. Only a third of the way through the novel, I felt the urge to fix the tape over my laptop webcam and unplug my smart clock. Slight spoiler: I have no desire to be anywhere near self-driving cars, anytime soon.

Self-driving cars aside, Doctorow asks questions that keep us up at night and exhibits real courage in trying to answer them. This is a realistic world where good intentions do not necessarily lead to good outcomes. In fact, they can make things a lot worse, if the circumstances permit. The only thing that took me out of this book were his slightly awkward uses of phrases like “SJW” and “woke.” These could have easily been abandoned, as could several strange depictions of Masha proving herself to be a strong, independent woman – these weren’t particularly necessary, but they did help me under­stand her awkward personality better.

The intimate first-person point of view allows readers a close look inside Masha’s head. She is not particularly likeable, but her lack of relatability isn’t an issue. Women-identifying characters should have the freedom to be as likeable or unlikeable as they need to be. However, her neutrality and flippant attitude was a bit difficult to read through, especially as we stumbled through flashbacks, where she took frustratingly milquetoast stances on rape, torture, and other forms of human misery for more money that she ever seemed to really need.

Doctorow gave us slivers of Masha’s personality by showing us how scary, tough, and independent she is, but it turned into a “not-like other girls” kind of situation – one in which she put down other women to make herself feel better about her own choices. Don’t get me wrong, though – Masha eventually turns into a character worth rooting for, and she eventually roots out her own internalized misogyny. However, it was difficult to understand her motivations until midway through the book. Just to emphasize again, for those who may misunderstand my messaging: women do not have to be likeable to be good characters. They just need a personality that is compelling and interesting, and Masha easily ticks off those boxes by the book’s climax.

Attack Surface is an uncomfortable read. Whistleblowers are heroes (the front cover has a resounding endorsement from Edward Snowden), BLM activists are unequivocally good, police of­ficers have gone too far, and anyone neutral about the issue is a bad guy. And I’m glad that it is uncom­fortable. Neutrality on these issues is an incredible bore to read – anyone can look the other way when protests are happening, but Doctorow reminds (American readers, especially) that many citizens already live in dystopias, and these dystopias thrive when we stop trying to reform them.

Maya C. James

Both Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008) and its sequel Homeland (2013) were published by Tor Teen as YA novels, although it’s a fair guess that the SF readers who nominated them for awards hardly noticed the target audience, or even cared. The immediacy of the issues Doctorow was raising – barely keeping in front of the newsfeeds – along with the passion­ate commitment to resistance and the hypercool explanations of surveillance technology, made each of them among the more important SF novels of their years. Still, in some key ways, they also tapped into venerable traditions. For one thing, they are both essentially coming-of-age novels, even though coming of age in Doctorow’s not-quite-dystopia-yet includes the teenage protago­nist Marcus Yallow being detained and tortured at a homeland security black site, later hanging out at Burning Man and getting involved in a Snowden-style whistleblower episode. For another, both novels belong to a long tradition of social-justice protest novels, dating back not only to Orwell, but to Jack London, William Dean Howells, and even Dickens – each of whom called attention to the oppressive technologies of their age much as Doctorow does. With the third novel in the series, Attack Surface – no longer identified as YA and published simply as part of the Tor imprint – the focus shifts from Yallow to Masha Maximow, a morally ambiguous secondary character from the first two novels who seems at least as much of an infotech prodigy as Marcus. Now, though, the literary antecedents reach all the way back to Faust and even the Gospel of Mark. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” popped into mind more than once when reading about Masha’s treacherous moral high-wire act.

Masha now works for an expensive black ops-type corporation called Xoth Intelligence, which offers its services to repressive regimes such as the former Soviet republic of Slovstakia (an ob­vious alias, she tells us, though it vaguely recalls Al Capp’s Slobbovia and that ancient diplomacy game), where she’s currently stationed, reporting to a fearsome boss she calls Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. While Masha clearly likes the money and takes pride in cleaning up the sloppy surveillance tech left behind by cheaper contractors, she has enough of a conscience that she spends her off-hours working with the very resistance that she’s helping to crush in her day job. Not surprisingly, she gets caught and, in good Jason Bourne mode, manages to finesse her way back to the Bay Area – the familiar setting of the first two novels – where her closest friend has become a chief organizer of a resistance movement called the Black-Brown Alliance, an outgrowth of the Black Lives Mat­ter movement. But Masha’s background haunts her there as well: before Xoth, she’d worked for another organization called Zyz (apparently these infosec firms use the same branding consultants as pharmaceutical companies), which has some really ominous contracts with San Francisco law enforcement and seems to be targeting the Black-Brown Alliance. Even more ominously, Carrie’s former boss at Zyz is none other than Carrie Johnstone, the ruthless supervillain of the first two novels and, more or less, Rosa Klebb to Masha’s James Bond.

Except for Masha’s ingenuity and competence, though, the Bond comparison doesn’t really hold up. While much of the appeal of Attack Surface is that its form is essentially that of the espionage novel, the governments which seemed so efficient in those novels are now little more than client states for the corporate web that really runs things, and Masha herself recalls less the superspies of the movies than the morally compromised victim-protagonists of John Le Carré. And while there are a few genuinely terrifying tech innovations – most notably a means of weaponizing self-driving cars – Doctorow is characteristically more interested in the kinds of systems that permit such abuses of power, and in how they work. So, as in the first two novels, we get brief tutorials on everything from binary transparency to information cascades to how to make a really secure phone call. Fortu­nately, Doctorow is a first-rate explainer, and like Kim Stanley Robinson and very few others, he manages to make these diversions fascinating in their own right. But what makes Attack Surface a far more mature and complex novel than either Little Brother or Homeland is Masha herself, increasingly torn between her almost pathologi­cal self-centered materialism, her desperate need for community, and her real sense of loyalty to her handful of friends. Damaged, fundamentally conflicted, and seldom fully sympathetic, she’s a memorable figure: a smart bomb who just wants to learn to be a person.

Gary K. Wolfe

Maya C. James is a graduate of the Lannan Fellows Program at Georgetown University, and full-time student at Harvard Divinity School. Her work has appeared in Star*Line, Strange Horizons, FIYAH, Soar: For Harriet, and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center Blog, among others. She was recently long listed for the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize (2019), and featured on a feminist speculative poetry panel at the 2019 CD Wright Women Writer’s Conference. Her work focuses primarily on Afrofuturism, and imagining sustainable futures for at-risk communities. You can find more of her work here, and follow her on Twitter: @mayawritesgood.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

These reviews and more like them in the January 2021 issue of Locus.

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