Review | Attack Surface – Cory Doctorow

Review | Attack Surface – Cory Doctorow

New York Times best-selling author, Cory Doctorow, returns to his Little Brother series. ‘Attack Surface’ is a sci-fi, technological thriller set in the near future where connectivity is weaponised.

Author: Cory Doctorow | Publisher: Head of Zeus | Year: 2020 | Fiction | Hardback

His 2008 young-adult novel ‘Little Brother’ made Cory Doctorow a New York Times best-selling author. He achieved the same accolade with his 2013 sequel, ‘Homeland’. The series followed the exploits of San Francisco teen, Marcus Yallow. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the Oakland Bay Bridge and BART, Marcus is prompted to take up digital activism in a bid to expose the Department of Homeland Security’s attacks on the Bill of Rights

Doctorow takes a different approach with a third novel set in the same world. ‘Attack Surface’ is a near-future technological thriller written for adults. The book also shifts protagonist. Focussing this time on Masha Maximov, a character we first encounter at the very start and end of ‘Little Brother’. Masha attempts to assist Marcus’ escape from the DHS. In return Marcus injures Masha’s hand. Slamming it in a truck door. Something she’s not quick to forget.

In contrast to Marcus, Masha chose not to embrace activism following the attacks. Instead she utilises her extraordinary talents for digital analysis to assist the DHS. Standing out amongst her peers, Masha’s career progresses at speed and before long she’s commanding a high salary, working for Info-Sec companies in war zones and former Eastern block territories.

To cope with the harsh realities that these experiences expose her to, Masha learns to compartmentalise. Boxing away her emotions, stowing away the the injustices she witnesses, subduing her relationships. Keeping her distance from Marcus ‘Fucking‘ Yallow. But beneath a sarcastic, hard-nosed exterior, Masha begins to make choices that find her walking a tight-rope between government contracting and exploiting her privileges in a bid to assist on-the-ground activists with their opsec. Can she offset the harm she does in her day job through activism by night?

Masha soon finds herself in the firing line. What she knows makes her a target for two former employers. At the same time she struggles to reconcile her commitment to the cause and, perhaps more importantly, her friends that believe so strongly in it.

The attack surface of a software environment is the sum of the different points where an unauthorized user can try to enter data to or extract data from an environment. Keeping the attack surface as small as possible is a basic security measure.

Cory Doctorow is at his very best when describing tense, close situations. A mass demonstration. Drones flying overhead. Police kettle tactics. Water cannons. That desperate sense of fighting against all the odds. The few standing for the many.

It’s this drama that made me a fan of the author and led me to explore his expansive bibliography. Not every book has been to my satisfaction. His 2018 novel, ‘Walkaway‘, was a chore to read with it’s pedestrian pace and unrelatable characters. It’s with some relief that ‘Attack Surface’ is something of a return to form.

It’s a stand-alone adult novel based in the same world as his earlier young-adult titles, ‘Little Brother’ and ‘Homeland’. The protagonist of those books appears in the supporting cast of this one, though the focus is definitively shifted to tell the story of Masha Maximow.

‘Attack Surface’ provides a timely rebellious yell. Set in the very near future, the author describes in excruciating detail how the connected world we take for granted can easily be used to track our every movement. Note our every transaction and, terrifyingly, be used as a weapon against us.

Through Masha, Doctorow builds a rich, fast-moving landscape that pulls back the curtain on the clandestine world of Information Security. The horrors that take place and the stone-cold decision makers who choose which hideous indiscretions will be seen by the public, and which will be hidden.

We witness as Masha’s cold exterior begins to thaw. Her dilemma is evident from the beginning. Her agency work allows her privileged position from which she can help the people she loves to fight the good fight. But is she really doing more harm than good? How long can she maintain a middle ground? Hard choices need to be made.

Set against a backdrop of rebellion in the former Easter block and movements much closer to home that are crucially pertinent right now (Black Lives Matter), Cory Doctorow pulls no punches when it comes to scaring the shit out of his readers. You’ll never use your phone with the same sense of ease again. You may well think twice about the benefits of self-driving cars.

My only criticism (a frequent gripe I have with Cory Doctorow’s work) is the the author’s propensity to over explain technical details. It takes the reader out of the moment, assumes they wouldn’t be able to keep up if the technology was merely alluded to, rather than blueprinted, and I cannot believe that the majority of readers would retain the knowledge beyond a couple of page turns. That said, ‘Attack Surface’ is a fast-paced, action-packed technological thriller based in reality. An enjoyable and, equally, terrifying read.

‘Attack Surface’ is available to buy now in Hardback, e-book and audiobook.

Four out of Five

A timely rebellious yell that taps into movements pertinent in today’s social climate – 4/5

This post forms part of the U.K. blog tour for ‘Attack Surface’ organised by publisher, Head of Zeus. The review is written honestly. If it really sucked, we would have said as much.

Will Harrison

About the author | Will Harrison

Founder of The Unheard Nerd. A husband and father of two girls, Will is a fan of Nerdcore Hip-Hop, a comics fiend, a podcast host and champion of independent nerd culture. | Follow will on twitter: @TheUnheardNerd