Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow. MacMillen, 2020. $26.99, 384 pages.
Other fans of Cory Doctorow will recall the way his previous works depict, in the way much science fiction does, the seemingly inevitable result of modern-day society, rife with speculation yet rich in insight. Certainly the reaction to Little Brother‘s fictional terrorist attack and Homeland‘s whistle blowing seemed to comment on the conclusion to which we seem inexorably drawn in our reality: the erosion of privacy and other personal rights. However, the third installment set in this fictional world seems to be commentary not on where we could go, but rather on where we already are.
Attack Surface, released October of 2020, follows previously overshadowed character Masha Maximow as its central figure working for a counter terrorist cyber security firm, the tool of an oppressive regime. However, her sympathies often shift towards the rebellions she is helping to quash, and she has an inclination to moonlight as a double agent. As the novel progresses, she is called into action by both sides and must decide whether to give her talents once and for all to the rebel idealists with whom her loyalties once lied. Fans of Little Brother and Homeland can rest assured that old figurehead of the series Marcus Yallow himself is a key player once again, although he is no longer the perspective from which the story is told.
Masha is certainly a different perspective to experience Doctorow’s world through. Incredibly brilliant and gifted, sharp and often teetering on the edge of full psychopathy, she is gifted beyond her own imaginings and becomes a protagonist to believe in over the course of the novel, rather than beginning as one. She, like other subjects of Doctorow’s work, highlights the problems with modern day technology, but relishes in it in a way that is unique to her perspective. As she states in the beginning of the novel, she loves technology because “it gives you power- and takes away other peoples’ privacy.” Often, other central figures are more sympathetic, including her childhood best friend Tanisha, whose role in the novel is one of the primary inclinations that this piece has become more focused on present-day.
Tanisha is one of the primary organizers of the Black-Brown Alliance, a non-subtle parallel to the Black Lives Matter movement. If it is anywhere that this novel stumbles, it is in the treatment of her character, who is arrested and must subsequently be saved by protagonist Masha. The Black-Brown Alliance is not given the proper amount of focus or autonomy over their part in Doctorow’s speculative world; while it makes sense to have a novel that’s focused on technology revolve around the use of technology, it doesn’t make sense to create a subsection of characters devoted towards racial justice without giving them proper shrift or time in the novel. It also feels somewhat distinct from the rest of the novel, and it’s worth wondering whether this storyline should have been included. Not that it isn’t a worthy topic of discussion- certainly it would fall within the scope of current events, which is usually Doctorow’s purview. But should the commentary on racial injustice come from the mouth of a white man- and should it come as a sideshow to the main focus?
In addition to this, placing Masha as the narrator results in some rather lengthy info-dumps about technology that are not for the faint of heart. They’re dense, but also characterize her intelligence and her breadth of knowledge well.
All in all, Attack Surface is a techno-thriller that will be sure to excite fans and first-time readers alike. However, it is not for those who like their punches pulled and their feathers unruffled. This novel shows how far human beings are willing to go in their actions and in their justifications for them; Attack Surface isn’t about exploring what we could be doing, but rather what it is we have already done. Reading it will make you ask yourself whether you stand with the rebels and rioters, and what you have done to make yourself complicit.
Charlie Coulter is a writer living in New Orleans, a student for now, and a friend forever. Afflicted by a bad case of coffee stomach from which she will never recover, she channels this energy into short stories and essays for the most part. She loves cult classic movies, independently owned local bookstores, and being published in the New Orleans Review.