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!)


“Radicalized” by Cory Doctorow

Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow, is a collection of four independent stories set just a moment in the future.  If you want four Black Mirror episodes filtered through Boing Boing, you’ll absolutely love Radicalized.

There’s an intensity, a purity in these stories, that really keeps you reading.   They are moral, they’re cutting, they’re biting.  They’re about otherness and othering.  These are stories written by an immigrant, the son of an asylum-seeker, and someone who has spent his life fighting for our digital rights. They’re not going to make you feel good.

The first story, Unauthorized Bread, is about a refugee who gets a spot on one of the “poor floors” of a posh high-rise, living in a Silicon Valley dream Internet of Crap dystopia, who learns to jailbreak her things.

There’s a story, Model Minority, about a Superman-alike who witnesses some senseless police brutality, steps in, and has to deal with the consequences.  Superman realizes Black Lives Matter but then struggles because he can’t punch police brutality in the face, and learns how quickly otherness can happen.  I loved the interplay between the Superman-alike and the Batman-alike.

The third story, Radicalized, was quite difficult for me to read.  It’s about a man who joins an online support group for folks dealing with terminal cancer in their loved ones, and their health insurances refuse to authorize their treatments.  The support group becomes more and more extreme, and he just can’t tear himself away.  It’s easy, too easy, to dismiss angry alt-right 20 somethings in chat rooms, but what’s it look like when that same rage is focused on health insurers?

The fourth story, Masque of the Red Death, is from the point of view of a rich financial trader, Martin, who has created his own “Fort Doom” and picked thirty lucky folks who will shelter out the apocalypse with him.  Doctorow has talked a few times about the choices we have when “it hits the fan”.  When your neighbor comes over for help, do you work together, or do you point a gun at him?  We’ve seen what working together looks like in Walkaway.  Doctorow shows his increasing skill in this story with point of view and word choice. Every moment we see the world from outside of Martin’s POV is simultaneously great and heartbreaking.

I know there will be a lot of people turned off by this book, who will get a whiff of it, feel feelings for things that they don’t want to have, and dismiss it as “propaganda”.  Midway through the first story, Unauthorized Bread, I had a different worry—are these all going to be Electronic Frontier Foundation fiction think pieces? I *love* the EFF, don’t get me wrong, but I do not need to read a novel yelling at me about the evils of DMCA and DRM and the Internet of Crap.  However, these worries were unfounded. Radicalized quickly digresses into dark glimpses of the world we’re creating for ourselves.

I received this book at no cost from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids by Jancee Dunn


I really enjoyed this book, and I’m putting much of it to good use. It’s a relatively quick read. In each section, she introduces a problem, tells some stories, and then talks to different experts before breaking it down into advice.

I’ve been recommending to basically every other dad I talk to.


“A Long Day in Lychford”

A Long Day in Lychford is the third in Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford series. They’re nice and short, and I really really like them.

This entry is in a post-Brexit Lychford. Autumn is basically the only person of color in Lychford, and takes Brexit hard, and Judith is Judith about it, and then they spend the rest of the story cleaning up after their mistakes.

Pros: More Judith!
Cons: I fear the next story will not be good for our witches or the inhabitants of Lychford.


“Burned” (Alex Verus #7)

I recently read the seventh Alex Verus book, Burned. There’s somewhat of a tradition in Urban Fantasy for a somewhat cocky main character to really get in a rough situation a handful of books in, something that takes more than a few chapters–maybe even more than a few books–to get out of.

I absolutely love his power, and I’m glad I’m not sick of it seven books in.

This is the start of Alex’s. I read this pretty quickly, over a few days, and I’m really glad the next one is already out. I’ll definitely be starting it this weekend!


“A Winter Tide” by Ruthanna Emrys

Another entry in the woke Lovecraft pastiche. I liked this one quite a lot. It’s quite slow, but that’s part of the charm.

After “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, the government raided Innsmouth and put everyone in an internment camp. Only two survived, the main character and her brother. She’s trying to figure out how to be an adult, and how to properly learn magic, and the FBI swoops in and “asks” for her help.

I really, really liked this.

There’s a prequel short story, “The Litany of Earth”. I didn’t read it until after I had read the novel, and everything worked fine for me. If you read “The Litany of Earth”, make sure to read Ada Palmer’s response when you’ve finished.


“A Closed and Common Orbit”

This was a surprise! This is the second Wayfarers book, after The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I thought The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was OK–good even, but not super wonderful.

This book, however, I absolutely loved. I am so pleasantly surprised by how great it was. It’s a standalone story about an AI put into a robot body that can pass for human. This is very illegal. She has a relatively hard time adjusting, and the story is interwoven with another story about a little girl who escapes from a scrap harvesting factory.

I don’t really want to describe it more–just go read it.


“Treat Your Own Back” by Robin McKenzie

A little under a year ago, I hurt my lower back. I followed all the advice I could find online, expecting that it would heal in a few months. I was taking 800 mg of Ibuprofen a day, which helped reduce the pain a bit, but I was in pain every day.

The pain lessened after a few months, but I was still in pain every single day.

About two weeks ago, I bought this book “Treat Your Own Back” by Robin McKenzie per some ancient Boingboing review. I read it in an evening, and did the set of stretches twice a day. They took under five minutes each time, and within a few days I was down to pain every other day or so, and two weeks in, it’s been a few days since I’ve had any back pain at all.

I don’t even notice my back! I will come back in a few months and update this post, but I really am amazed at how well this worked.


“The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe”

I absolutely loved this. It’s a 2017 Hugo nominee, and is one of the ones I read in preparation for voting.

It’s about an older woman who teaches at a woman’s college. One of her students leaves, and because the student is the daughter of one of the board members, the Vellitt Boe leaves to go bring her back.

Vellitt Boe lives in the Dreamlands, and as she travels across them we learn about her past and her environs.

The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe is one of the many “woke Lovecraft pastiches” that have come out in the past few years, but I’m not complaining at all. It’s wonderful and a complete delight.

I read this at a campground in the middle of Wisconsin over Fourth of July holiday, and there’s a small shoutout to a town about 30 minutes away from where I was. Small world!


“Carson Crosses Canada”

This is a cute picture book about an older lady who travels with her dog across Canada to visit her sister. My 3 year old liked it and asked to read it multiple times. He likes the map page the best 🙂

I enjoyed having a woman without children as the main character–not because it’s emphasized, but I think that’s relatively rare in picture books. I like how they included a variety of places in Canada that look different, as many folks in the States just think of Canada as a frozen-over field of snow.

I received this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.