Masha Maximow knows technology, and the many ways it can be used to invade a person’s privacy. And she should: she’s being paid big money to implement technology for just those reasons for all sorts of nefarious end-users, currently the right-wing government of the former Soviet republic of Slovstakia, who are using it to keep tabs on their most vocal opponents. Outside her day job, Masha kills time by joining the nightly protests, and by teaching the leaders of those protests just how to beat the technology that is arrayed against them. A master compartmentaliser, Masha can easily reconcile these two distinct parts of her life. But when she is fired from her high-paid job and the same technology she has been administering is used to turn the country’s fleet of autonomous taxis into killing machines, Masha finds herself back in San Francisco. Here she discovers old friends who are the type of people she would have been spying on the week before: activists and protestors who are doing what they can for a better, fairer world. Now Masha must make a choice, which means opening all those compartments to see what’s inside.
Masha Maximow is a returning character in the fiction of Cory Doctorow, but his latest novel, Attack Surface, stands on its own, and requires no knowledge of Masha’s past exploits; trust me, this is my first tentative foray into Doctorow’s world, so I know what I’m talking about. Marketed as science fiction, Doctorow gives us a brief glimpse into tomorrow – if not sometime later this evening – using Masha to walk us through a story that could be taken directly from next week’s headlines. This is not your average dose of wildly speculative science fiction, but a very plausible tomorrow that will only be speculative to anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to the news for the past six months, or four years, or decade. This is not the book you pick up to escape from the nightly protests we see on the news, or the authoritarian nightmare that the modern world has become. In Attack Surface, Cory Doctorow examines these issues in an attempt to shine a light on what’s going on, and to provide his readers with some light at the end of the tunnel in an entertaining way.
Attack Surface is often heavy on the technical detail which may be off-putting for some less-technical readers and may make Doctorow’s work something of an acquired taste. It took this reader somewhat by surprise, but after the initial shock, I soon found the book’s rhythm. Masha is an engaging narrator, a young woman aware of her own limitations, for whom technology is the be-all and end-all. This becomes more apparent as the story progresses, and we see that she can’t imagine what alternatives might exist should technology not be up to the problem.
There’s a sometimes larger-than-life feel to what’s going on: the two companies competing for Masha’s skills have equally unpronounceable names (“we used the same marketing company” one of her bosses quips at one point) and are headed by equally psychotic caricatures – scary-crazy Carrie Johnstone on the one hand and Herthe Netzke – nicknamed Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. by the ever-sharp and sarcastic Masha – on the other. Despite the large-scale problems that the book examines, there’s still time to examine things on a more personal level and the threat to Masha and her friends is never less than real and extremely pressing.
Doctorow’s aim is to examine activist (and hacktivist) culture through the lens of state-sponsored cyber warfare. While the companies and the specifics are fictional, the threat is more than real – as attested in the two book’s two afterwords. This is a story we can identify with – some of us more than others – as we watch protests against government, against unregulated police powers, against injustice against minorities of any description. As the novel approaches its climax, Doctorow gives us a breath-taking, edge-of-the-seat front-row view of what it feels like to be in the middle of one of these protests, and of the dangers faced by the people who partake on a regular basis. And as he plays on our emotions, bringing a tear to the eye and a lump to the throat, Doctorow tries to educate us in how to use technology to make ourselves safer and why if we use nothing but technology, then we’re doing it all wrong.
Anyone who has more than a passing experience with Reader Dad will know that I’m a technologist for whom Neal Stephenson comes second only to Stephen King when it comes to favourite authors. I’m as surprised as you are that I haven’t dipped my toe into the works of Doctorow before this, but based on this first foray, it certainly won’t be my last. Attack Surface is like no other fiction you’ll read this year – or ever. Amongst all the cyber warfare and counterintelligence, the activism and an examination of the issues that face today’s global citizen, there’s a solid and entertaining plot, a sort of whodunnit that twists and turns so that – just as in real life – we’re never quite sure who are the good guys and who the bad. Invested with an emotional heart and a wonderful sense of humour, Attack Surface is a book that should be part of the syllabus across the globe, and one of the best books you’ll read in 2020. Next stop for this reader will be Doctorow’s Little Brother for another dose of Masha. Here’s hoping we’ll get further outings as she grows older, and as Doctorow’s interests develop. Suffice to say that this is an author who will give Stephenson a run for his money at the top of my favourite authors list.