I read Cory Doctorow’s Attack Surface in the past days. I bought it already late November, directly from the author’s website (I’m trying to avoid buying through Amazon when I can), but read some other books first.
Attack Surface is a fast paced action packed novel, and I enjoyed it a lot. It takes you on a tour of both general and targeted surveillance technology and discusses how and when you can expect to be able to defend yourself against it, and when not. Reading the book was much like being in conversation with Arjen Kamphuis a Dutch it security expert who went missing in Norway two years ago, and like reading the accompanying storyline to Arjen’s 2014 book Infosecurity for Journalists.
Doctorow doesn’t explain technology much in his books, on purpose. He uses his books to make people aware of the names and terms to describe current tech, to ensure they know how to search online for explanations of the technology. On the assumption that the lack of awareness about certain tech, and the social and political implications of that tech, stems from not knowing enough to be able to search for more information. His books fill that gap.
…when I sat down in 2006 to write the first Little Brother book, I realized that facts were now cheap – anything could be discovered with a single search. The thing in short supply now was search terms – knowing what to search for.
For Attack Surface, one reader took this notion to turn it into a ‘Mashapedia‘ (Masha is the book’s protagonist), to provide a chapter by chapter glossary with links to explanations of each technology mentioned.
Doctorow describes himself as a realistic techno-optimist, not a tech-utopian, and I’m in the same position. In the final chapters of the book the characters point out that resisting surveillance tech is not about winning against that tech and permanently becoming immune to surveillance, but to create enough space to win political momentum against surveillance or those who use it. To resist surveillance in order to work political change. This hews close to the type of conversation I had during the Cph150 I had last year.
Around that time I wrote “treating [my work] as a political endeavour in its own right is different. I realise I may be in a place in my work where that deserves to have a much more deliberate role.” Doctorow reminds me to think that through some more, also as it builds on his contribution to the SF writers and economists meet-up late 2019 in Brussels I took part in, and the conversation we had there beforehand.
I read Fall or Dodge in Hell in the past two weeks, reading the Dutch book Suikerbastaard in between.
Fall is about 900 pages, so it took a bit more time than average to read.
(spoilers below the image)
Neal Stephenson discussing The Fall, image by Christopher Michel, license CC-BY
The book consists of multiple distinct large parts on a timeline. Normal beginnings where a billionaire wants his body preserved until his brain can be properly scanned, a part where the internet is becoming obsolete due to too many fakes, hoaxes and trolling, a post truth US where religious cults are rampant in Ameristan i.e. the spaces between the urban areas that are still tied to reality, the part where the rebooted brain of the billionaire creates his own world, to be unseated as main deity by newcomers, and a quest to right that wrong.
Enoch Root makes an appearance again, entering quite dramatically, and seems to indicate he comes from a plane of existence that created our world as a simulation. Towards the end Zula says ‘I understand light speed now’ as an externally applied constraint, the limit posed by the processing power available to our virtual environment. The speed at which changes propagating from an event can be calculated determines the speed of causality in the piece of spacetime we’re in. That’s the moment Enoch Root says to her his task here is complete and he vanishes into the fog, suggesting he’s leaving our sim, to return to another plane of existence. Not so much turtles all the way down, as sims all the way up?
The first novel by Ada Hoffmann (pseudonym), a Canadian author, published last year. A Lovecraft subversion of ultimately almost an entire planet brings on the Inquisition, AI gods originally created by man from our current lowly computers (since banned as heretic by the AI), and dependent on a diet of human minds. The protagonist, Yasira, like the author, is autistic and it enables her to grasp patterns that elude others, ultimately her Inquisitor as well. In doing so she finds a tenuous place in The Outside for herself and the love of her life, and a way of carefully balancing and joining the humans on the subverted planet with/into the pattern of The Outside, so they have meaningful agency in it. Weaving humanism into cosmicism at the hands of a ‘neuro-divergent’ protagonist like that, to me is a beautiful subversion in itself of Lovecraft (1890-1937), whose rascist nativist mind’s nihilism at the dawn of the scientific century can’t be seen separate from the stranger than fiction he wrote.
Enjoyed this. Its sequel is due to appear in 2021. Time, like space, is a lie, so it will be here soon, if it isn’t already.
An epistolary novel, spanning the ages and the many-verse branches of a time war. The Agency, a post-singularity technoworld, and The Garden, a world spanning consciousness based in all organic matter, each field agents to nudge history towards themselves as inevitable outcome of time. Red and Blue are opposing agents that enter into correspondence. Co-written by Amal el-Mothar and Max Gladstone. A very different story, which made it great fun to read.
A capable engineer treats the world as a machine in order to exact revenge for a personal injustice. The enormous human consequences are regrettable collateral damage but an unavoidable part of the logic, at least to the engineer. Set in a medieval world in which one anomalous city state is a guilds-run bureaucratised industrial power.
Published 2005, Part 1 of a trilogy. K.J. Parker is a pseudonym for Tom Holt.