Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow

Attack Surface, Cory Doctorow’s newest novel in the Little Brotherverse, is excellent. Like the previous novels, it has nerds fighting for human rights, it has protests and activism, it has open-source and soldering irons. In comparison, however, it now has expense accounts, workplace intrigue, and added nuance. It shows us while technology can help organize political power to fight oppression, it can be quickly adopted by the oppressors themselves–a marked growth of this series’ evolving thesis. If you enjoyed Little Brother or Homeland, you don’t really need to read any further–you’ll love it, and appreciate the increased insight that comes with another decade of Doctorow’s focused thinking on the intersection of technology, freedom, and politics. I was unable to put it down, and read it in a single sitting, until the early hours of the morning. If you haven’t read the previous books or thought Marcus seemed naive, caught up in his own technonavel, give Attack Surface a shot.

While the previous two books were from the point of view of Marcus, Attack Surface is about Masha. She signed up with the Department of Homeland Security to help fight terrorism, after the terror attack from the start of Little Brother. Something like a decade later, she’s bounced around a few places. The start of Attack Surface has her jet setting around the globe, working for a cybersecurity company, installing software for authoritarian, totalitarian, and fascist governments by day, and helping the very activists she’s helping target at night. This is not a stable situation. Before long, she’s looking for a new job. She ends up back in the Bay and stumbles upon another government operation violating civil rights.

I loved Masha as the viewpoint character. Masha is certainly an adult, and, while she has some personal blind spots, she’s full of self-insight. I enjoyed getting to walk through her past, and I liked seeing old favorites from previous books. Although no longer nemeses, Masha still serves as a way to see Marcus from a different angle, enriching the previous works.

Doctorow still delights in didactic description–for instance, you’ll read about how governments analyze social networks, what to avoid and what to strive for in a protest, and I hope you come out of it realizing that you definitely still can’t trust your pocket camera microphone with its unauditable baseband processor.

When thinking about technology from a political angle, it is very easy to get wrapped up in the tech. After learning how to use some math and engineering, it’s easy to confuse playing super spy with these things as fighting for freedom, as making the world a better place. It’s equally as easy to get overwhelmed and apathetic because you can dream up a scenario where any particular thing could be broken, so why try to do anything at all? Attack Surface does an excellent job of helping the reader keep this balance.

Honestly, I don’t think you need to read Little Brother and Homeland to enjoy Attack Surface, but if you haven’t read them and are looking to read them spoiler-free, stop reading here. SPOILERS FOR LITTLE BROTHER AND HOMELAND FOLLOW.

Little Brother (2008): Marcus, the main character, and a few of his friends are arrested and detained by the Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. After witnessing some government abuses of power, Marcus and his friends use commodity hardware, strong encryption, open-source software, and The Power of Friendship to “fight back against the surveillance state”. It ends after Marcus convinces a journalist, who writes about some shady things the DHS is doing, and the State Patrol comes in to shut the DHS’s operation down.

Even though Doctorow brings the reader to a boil showing that “it could happen here”, Little Brother is a relatively fun read. There’s teenage romance, of course. Doctorow drips with delights in his didactic sections, instructions showcasing various technologies and techniques that can be used to increase “opsec” or to bypass surveillance and tactics used by oppressive regimes.

Homeland (2013): Set a few years later, California’s economy is in rough shape. Marcus is working as a web developer for an idealistic politician. Marcus gets a thumb drive from Masha, a character we know from Little Brother. It’s full of secret documents detailing government abuses from around the world, and Masha tells Marcus to leak the documents if she goes missing. Sure enough, she does, and Marcus has a dilemma. If he releases the documents publicly, his boss won’t be elected, but there’s no guarantee that just dropping the documents on the internet will actually help anything.

Between Little Brother and Homeland was Occupy Wall Street, that campus police officer walking down the line of students spraying them with military pepper spray from a foot away, the Arab Spring…

Homeland expands on the idea that fancy tools and techniques can be used to organize mass movements to hold the government accountable while adding a bunch of “things will get complicated real fast, and many things won’t seem black-and-white.”

Attack Surface is a welcome addition to the Little Brotherverse. It’s upbeat, without being naively optimistic. It avoids cynicism and apathy while acknowledging these as common responses to “the current political realities”. Experiencing an adventure from Masha’s perspective is an enlightening change from riding along with Marcus. The added depth and perspective expand not only this work but also the previous ones. I definitely recommend it!

(I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. A friendly person over at the publisher actually asked if I would review it, which is the first time that’s ever happened!)