I didn't really expect to even attempt the Doctorow. Its summary (is it called a blurb? or is the word blurb used only for endorsements by famous reviewers?) is sufficiently repelling. Here it is, from the Amazon site:
Most days, Masha Maximow was sure she'd chosen the winning side.
In her day job as a counterterrorism wizard for an transnational cybersecurity firm, she made the hacks that allowed repressive regimes to spy on dissidents, and manipulate their every move. The perks were fantastic, and the pay was obscene.
Just for fun, and to piss off her masters, Masha sometimes used her mad skills to help those same troublemakers evade detection, if their cause was just. It was a dangerous game and a hell of a rush. But seriously self-destructive. And unsustainable.
When her targets were strangers in faraway police states, it was easy to compartmentalize, to ignore the collateral damage of murder, rape, and torture. But when it hits close to home, and the hacks and exploits she's devised are directed at her friends and family--including boy wonder Marcus Yallow, her old crush and archrival, and his entourage of naïve idealists--Masha realizes she has to choose.
And whatever choice she makes, someone is going to get hurt.
First, a female protagonist who is an elite computer security expert. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with male writers choosing a female for their protagonist, but with Doctorow one can't help thinking that it's a political statement. Creating a role model for young girls to aspire to. I don't know why this Masha had to have a Russian heritage; perhaps a nod to Doctorow's own roots.
Second, the language of this summary: a counterterrorism wizard, her mad skills, boy wonder Marcus Yallow, her old crush and archrival, ugh. Thankfully, the actual book was much better than this cartoon of a summary, although again, it isn't saying much.
Here are some quotes from the book:
Young, slender, made-up, and smelling like a duty-free, my mother could have passed for a grad student on a big night out. In reality, she was an executive secretary who had wiped the nose and held the hands of an unending parade of mediocre white men who had been promoted through the ranks of Bank of America and never cared to bring along the personal assistant who’d been shopping for their wives and answering their emails.
The reality is, there was a kind of blip when a minority of working stiffs–white dudes, mostly–held a little more political power, that lasted for less than a century. Now, humanity was returning to its baseline: all or nothing, with a tiny super-rich minority able to control everyone and everything else. The smarter your device, the harder it would be for you to outsmart it. Technology didn’t create the brief democratic blip, and it didn’t kill it, but now that it’s dead, technology will sure as shit make sure it never comes back. Those days are done.
Carrie Johnstone called me smart but if I were really smart, I would have deleted every incriminating file and told every one of those spook-boys who visited me from Langley or Fort Meade with a USB stick to jam it up their tight, white asses.
or how about this one
She gave me a long, considering stare. “You know, I’ve been hiring people to do jobs like yours for years and you’re the first one who’s ever admitted that she didn’t know enough about programming to solve her problems.”
That stare was supposed to intimidate me. I didn’t let it. “Were they all dudes?”
“There you are, then. Statistically, only ten percent of programmers are really in the killer leagues, but dudes all like to think that they’re defying the odds and sitting up there among that elite decile. I have good ideas, but I’m not about to kid myself that I’m the greatest programmer that ever lived.”
Finally, here is Masha's cause celebre — a friend who is an activist in the Black and Brown Alliance. Which is oppressed by the mean and repressive Uncle Sam:
“So tell me about this Black-Brown Alliance,” I said, leaning back on the diner’s bench seat, slowly digesting my pancakes as coffee and jetlag warred for control of my eyelids.
“We grew out of Black Lives Matter. They threw everything at BLM: spies, provocateurs, terrorism charges, RICO charges, disinformation campaigns. BLM kept growing. States passed laws that let them charge million-dollar fines to activist groups that called demonstrations where there was property damage—any property damage, even a kicked-over trash can. BLM crowdfunded the fines and got stronger every time, and so other people picked up on it, and then you had Brown Lives Matter, which came out of the Council on American Islamic Relations, who’d been fighting similar shit that was still different enough that they wanted to get at it their own way. Then there was Latinx Lives Matter, organizing around immigration raids.
“Yadda, yadda: after a while we figured that since we were all on the same side, we should coordinate together and it turned out there were some people whose favorite thing was to be that bridge between the different groups. It was like the old SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the people who loved to be facilitators, and that’s how the Black-Brown Alliance was born.”
“Sounds like progress.”
Tanisha made a face. “Yeah, it’s great, all right. We’re the scariest monster of the mass white supremacist psyche: black folks and Muslims and Arabs and Persians and Mexicans and Salvadorans and Hondurans and Colombians, a sea of brown and black faces stretching as far as the eye can see, having one another’s back, refusing to be divided. You name a cause, we’re on it: Fight for Fifteen, debt strikes, immigration amnesty, Planned Parenthood, prison reform, voter suppression, the war on the War on Drugs, and locking up every single dirty banker and CEO in America—” She was counting them off on her fingers. She made a fist. “The whole fuckin’ enchilada, as my white, liberal burrito-eating friends would say.”
I looked at Tanisha, really looked at her, trying to see her as a stranger would see her. Tanisha’d always had inner strength that was hidden behind her easygoing peacemaker role in our friend group. Now that strength shone through. Without trying, Tanisha looked tough, like someone who’d take any shade you threw at her, weaponize it, and use it to cut you open from throat to belly. Someone who knew everything going on around her, ready to react to it like a judo champ turning your punch into a throw and lobbing you over her shoulder without even seeming to move.
She was Woke Wonder Woman.
Tanisha took a sip of coffee and poked at her abandoned half stack. “Then we started putting names on the ballot. We wrote a ticket, fifteen campaign pledges hitting all our major goals, and we fundraised to put up five hundred candidates at the state and local levels who’d back them, then spent even more money on voter registration drives and challenges to dirty vote-suppression tactics in every one of those races. Our good friends in the Democratic Party said we were being too idealistic—especially the corporate Dems whose asses we were primarying. Three hundred seventy-two of our candidates got into office in the first cycle, and that’s when the hammer came down.
“All of a sudden, every one of our rallies turned violent when masked Black Blocers started throwing rocks and punches. No one knew who these people were—that’s the point of the Black Bloc—but we heard stories of these people being allowed to slip through the police lines and disappear. Then videos showed up, and yup, it sure as hell looked like these dudes were smashing bank windows and setting fire to cop cars and then walking away whistling while the cops arrested everyone else.
“At the same time, our internal mailing lists went super toxic. Mean arguments broke out and just as soon as they seemed like we’d put ’em behind us, they’d flare up again, twice as bad as before. Our ugliest moments leaked onto social media, ended up in the press, got used to shit on our candidates when they were pushing for better labor laws or housing laws or voter laws, like, ‘You gonna listen to this idiot? Look at how fucked-up her friends are—what makes her competent to make laws?’”
I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach. I knew this playbook. I’d written this playbook.
“We knew we were infiltrated. We knew we were hacked. We weren’t stupid. So we took countermeasures. New devices, new messaging platforms, new opsec. We followed the recipes we found online from the Committee to Protect Journalists, from Cryptoparty, the EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense Kit.
“But a lot of that stuff? It’s about letting you know when you’re hacked—not about making you hack-proof. Stuff like binary transparency. We all update the second a new version drops because we all want to be patched against whatever is latest and worst, so we started paying attention to the binary transparency alerts, even though they’re almost always false alarms.”
“Until they aren’t.”
There is a good deal of similarity between this and the Soviet novels.