This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Mental health issues
- Rape/sexual assault
Pretty much the only public place I have visited in the past year—other than Berlin’s dingy supermarkets—was the city’s Stasi Museum. Hidden among the stodgy communist tenement blocks of the Lichtenberg district, the museum is based in the former headquarters of the GDR’s Ministry of State Security, or secret police. While the lower levels contain the usual exhibits and infographics, the ministry’s upper floors are perfectly preserved: bemasked and enchanted, I wandered around the offices and meeting rooms of what was once one of the world’s largest centres of surveillance.
Thanks to the pandemic, there were few other visitors. The offices were empty. Rows of specialised telephones lay there, unused for decades, and the space around the grand conference table was silent. The hulking desks and plush armchairs are all that is now left of the precious surveillance regime of a long-dead state. I took pictures of the bulky, once state-of-the-art equipment using my iPhone.
The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit was stormed by protestors in January 1990. Democracy won, yet in my pocket, I carried a device which would enthral any twentieth-century totalitarian. This is hardly an original thought; in fact, thousands upon thousands of articles detail the privacy threats generated by our personal anxiety boxes, and we still don’t know exactly how much we’re being watched, tracked, and listened to. The warnings aren’t working. This is where Cory Doctorow’s latest novel Attack Surface enters: perhaps fiction can succeed where nonfiction has failed.
Doctorow makes no secret that his aim is to educate and inform. The novel opens with a dedication to real-world whistleblowers, including Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, with Attack Surface’s protagonist—Masha—working for a shadowy firm, which helps authoritarian regimes spy on subversive citizens. The novel’s tension comes from the fact that Masha is working both sides, simultaneously assisting the protestors her software is designed to follow. Her conflict lies between cynical compliance and idealistic rebellion. As she puts it:
Having a day job where you help repressive regimes spy on their dissidents and a hobby where you help those dissidents evade detection is self-destructive.
Set about twenty minutes into the future, Attack Surface mixes current political trends with near-future ones and does the same with technology. Masha herself appears to be an older millennial, saying she came of age between dot-com bubbles. A technology prodigy, she began spying on her classmates at thirteen, landing a job at the Department for Homeland Security before moving into the corporate sector. She is defined by her cynicism, and her work has made her wealthy.
It’s very glam to live in a Berlin squat and fuck idealistic teenyboppers and go on freegan dumpster-diving missions with dropout MIT kids who are experimenting with molecular gastronomy. I do it every now and again, by way of a holiday. But the best thing about that kind of holiday is finishing it in a nice, anonymous international-style hotel with a rooftop pool, a spa massage, and yoga classes …
Let me be clear: I absolutely hate Masha. I believe the reader is supposed to hate Masha. Her greedy, self-serving cynicism is reinforced by obsessive “compartmentalisation”—she is so obsessive that she refers to this characteristic sixty-four times throughout the course of the story (why yes, of course, I counted). In total denial of her mental health issues and corrupted ethics, Masha’s journey is to decompartmentalise and gain integrity in a way which mirrors the story’s central conflict between cynicism and idealism.
Masha’s story wrestles with an issue which plagues contemporary fiction: how can twenty-first-century conflict be represented when so much happens online? In so doing, it confronts the reader with a daunting level of technical information—from the first chapter to the last. As a result, the novel requires interest and commitment, describing everything from facial recognition to linguistic identification, encryption, and software bugs in minute detail. It’s a unique experience. Thankfully, the novel contains suspenseful action scenes and gut-sinking horrors which serve as powerful antidotes to the drier technological descriptions. It gives the novel a strange feeling of education and reward: get through this detailed explanation of peer-to-peer encryption, and get to watch some self-driving cars go berserk and smush random people into pieces. The best of these moments of action centre around protest scenes, in which Doctorow blends page-turning action with strident politics.
Of course, strident politics are to be expected from the author of Walkaway. Surveillance corporations are the big-bad villains, and Doctorow makes clear that the problem is exacerbated by capitalism, comparing “the barons of the surveillance economy” with the “hydrocarbon barons” fuelling climate change. He’s not afraid to denigrate Blue Lives Matter, red-pilling, or Nazi skinheads, and for this queer leftist that is hugely gratifying to see. It makes the novel feel relevant.
Unfortunately, this political relevance is undermined by Masha’s narrative voice. While I really enjoy her moral ambiguity, her vocabulary is generally clunky and unnatural, stuffed with word choices, which fit neither her age nor culture: “girly cred,” “uber” (not the rideshare), “total ninja,” “wizard,” “wizard-ninja,” and “the biz” are presented alongside recent terms like “woke.” As a result she reads like an amalgamation of young people from 1990 to 2020. I wish, too, that Doctorow would lay off the slang—one of my few criticisms of Walkaway was his incessant use of the term “snowflake.”
But we’re only easing in here, because outdated slang is the least of Masha’s problems. Now, first I should point out that I am a big lipstick-wearing, beard-toting, nonbinary giant, and gender often feels like a language I just can’t speak fluently. At the same time, I’m also a big lipstick-wearing, beard-toting, nonbinary writer, and I have no problem creating characters that are men, women, in-between, or neither. And I’m hardly alone in that.
I’m sorry to spew my gender politics all over this review like the PC ruffian I truly am, but I cannot understand why some cishet male writers struggle so much when it comes to writing women. Masha has a strong “not like the other girls” vibe, and explicitly doesn’t identify with the expectations of her gender. Yet she also constantly makes reference to herself as a “girl” or “lady,” as though Doctorow has to remind himself that Masha is, indeed, a girl-lady. She also does the same thing to every other woman, to the point that their gender winds up feeling like most of their personalities.
Of course, everyone has a different relationship with their own identities, and said identities will weigh on each person differently. The problem is that Masha’s identification with her gender contradicts itself in a way that doesn’t feel cohesive. And even though I’m three paragraphs into my gender rant, I sadly can’t leave things there because—as you may have guessed from the content warning above—we also have a rape.
It’s thankfully becoming common advice among writers that rape should only be included when necessary and not simply for shock effect, yet Attack Surface inexplicably features a rape of a character named Sruthi, who is never referenced before or afterward. Her whole purpose is to provide the backstory to Masha’s friendship with her classmate Tanisha, who warns Masha that the guy she’s seeing is a “big, rapey guy.” As a result,, Sruthi is solely defined by her rape, and the subject is presented with cartoonish simplicity:
One of her eyes was swollen shut, and her cheek was puffy, and she held one arm bent stiff in front of her, like it was about to fall off.
This isn’t a problem limited to a single work, but fictional rapes are almost always accompanied by a black eye or two, and though that obviously does happen, most of the time rape doesn’t leave such blindingly obvious physical proof. And it makes it harder for victims of rape to come to terms with what’s happened to them—and come forward—when the rapes they’ve seen in fiction all come with noticeable physical damage and theirs didn’t. This is a strange and difficult thing to reveal in a book review, but I know all this from painful personal experience.
Woo, this is getting heavy. And again, this isn’t so much an issue specifically with Attack Surface as it is a problem in aggregate; but I wish the novel didn’t draw on such a cliché, particularly when it serves no real purpose to the plot. Let’s move on.
Characterisation is a more general issue throughout the novel, particularly as each member of the novel’s cast is defined by one or two traits which are referenced incessantly. The worst example of this occurs in the case of Tanisha, who is—for some reason—constantly double-sighing. And unless I’ve been raised in some insular bubble where people only sigh once, I don’t think double-sighing is a thing. I can’t even imagine how that’s supposed to sound. I know I’m focusing on something very specific, but it happens every time the character is in a scene, often multiple times. She even does it when giving a speech. It’s a “quirk” in place of a personality, and it’s used to recognise her character: “Over hundreds of phone speakers, the person speaking sighed. Sighed again. It was Tanisha.”
The novel’s pacing is also erratic, with the plot leaping across time and space in ways which make it difficult to follow. Some tantalising scenes are skipped over, while others move so slowly you could mistake them for a British passenger train. There are four main locations to the story, and at least two of them could be cut with no vital impact on the plot. Then there are the awkward repetitions, such as: “I hadn’t understood a thing. We marched on. My knee groaned beneath me, but I didn’t hear a thing.” There’s a general feel that the novel is in need of more vigorous editing, which is odd as in his author’s note Doctorow says he cut 40,000 words. He could have cut 40,000 more.
Perhaps this all sounds too negative. One of my partners recently told me that I get too enthusiastic when it comes to media criticism, saying, “When you’re critical, you make it sound like you hate something even when you don’t.” And despite the past few paragraphs, I don’t hate Attack Surface. At its core, it’s a unique, difficult, brave novel that presents us with an important manifesto and a potent idealism. Doctorow’s attempts to educate his readers also work because I did learn about surveillance technologies. Living in a world that’s moved so far from the stuffy offices of the Stasi Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, I feel a little more informed and better prepared. I’m genuinely grateful for that and have significant respect for Doctorow’s mission.
Yet, unlike in Walkaway, this mission—however important—fails to make for a fantastic novel. Awkward characterisation, pacing, narration, and dialogue all distract from the strident politics and technological cleverness. This makes for a clunky, at times, frustrating read, and I wouldn’t recommend it to all readers. But if you’re interested in surveillance or unapologetic idealism, you’ll find a novel with a message and a way forward. As one character states:
I’ve been standing right here, waiting for the arc of history to bend toward justice … You either bend the arc, or it bends you: you stand up, or you surrender. There’s no middle ground …