A Tale of Two Doctorows

Without planning or malice aforethought, I found myself reading books by two Doctorow’s – E.L. and Cory – at the same moment. This felt rather like a literary Mr. Shuffle (where two songs randomly played off my Apple Playlist happen to have some odd relationship). There is, after all, nothing to tie their work together. They are about as different in style, tone, and intent as it is possible to be. I have read a fair number of E.L. Doctorow novels and this one, City of God, was a birthday gift. Attack Surface is my first Cory Doctorow book, though I know of him as a writer on technology and cultural issues. I picked Attack Surface off Libby because it was available, highly sorted by popularity, classified as Sci-Fi (I read quite a bit) and featured a heroine employed in data analytics (a job which I am, after all, a professional).

City of God was published in 2000 – in the back-half of E. L. Doctorow’s career. It’s a little less colorful than some of his novels and perhaps a bit more metaphysical. Taking its title from Augustine’s City of God, Doctorow explores whether and to what extent anyone in the modern world can find such a place. Augustine, of course, took the City of God for granted and was primarily interested on how it fit together with the City of Man in our lives. But what was pervasive for a Medieval philosopher is, for us, nearly impossible to discover. Doctorow sets the novel up as an exploration of the paths we might follow to a modern understanding of non-material value: from a back-to-the-beginning exploration of religious thought, a deep study of the universe, a dive into metaphysics, and – of course – that old Socratic standby, the erotic.

Like most Doctorow novels, it’s stuffed with interesting scenes, thoughts and seeming digressions. It hops from place to place and character to character. It demands your attention but provides plenty of rewards. And it is full of ambition. Ambition in a literary sense (creating diaries for Wittgenstein and writing extended sections of epic poetry) and ambition in a philosophic sense with a determined exploration of everything from scriptural analysis to the role of movie reviews.

Reading it side by side with Cory Doctorow’s Attack Surface was…strange. Because if City of God is a very ambitious novel in the classic sense of what a novel is supposed to be and do, Attack Surface is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It appears to have no ambitions at all. It aspires neither to art nor entertainment. Its characters are a dimension short of 2-dimensional. Its plot is anemic, absurd and confused. Its writing is limp even by blogging standards. It’s a profoundly stupid book in its political aspirations. I would have said that it was bad art, bad politics, and bad technology except that it actually isn’t bad when it comes to technology.

While Attack Surface’s heroine is about as plausible a data analyst as Top Gun’s Kelly McGillis was an astrophysicist (sad since unlike Hollywood, a book need not cast a lovely face and body in lieu of a character), the basic analytics procedures and at least some of the challenges of analytics work are well described. I’m no expert on hacking, but that part of the book also felt convincing. He either knows his stuff or did his research well enough to be convincing even to a fairly technical reader. So if you were, say, looking for a 2,000 word article on common hacking and intelligence data analytics techniques, Attack Surface would be perfect as long as you didn’t mind reading another 60K words of useless, mind-numbing bloat.

It’s unfair, of course, to pick on Cory Doctorow for not being E.L. Doctorow simply because they have the misfortune to share the same, unusual, last name. Most novelists aren’t working at the same level E.L. Doctorow was. But the problem isn’t that Cory Doctorow is a much worse writer than his namesake – nearly all of us are much worse writers (including many working novelists doing valuable or entertaining work) – it’s the fact that he isn’t trying to do what novels typically do that makes Attack Surface so problematic.

There’s nothing wrong with writing books that provide light entertainment. We all need light entertainment. But Attack Surface shows so little interest in plot and character that it’s hard to think that providing entertainment was the author’s goal. In fact, other than technology, the only thing the author seems interested in is politics. And that interest is neither exploratory nor critical.

People, these days, don’t seem to have political opinions, they have an ideology. And that ideology isn’t some deep, coherent set of political principles (however misguided). They have, instead, purchased their political opinions wholesale in one huge, shrink-wrapped bundle like those bags of toilet paper at Costco. They have little concern for how all those rolls of tissue fit together or how sturdy any of them are. People just want enough of them to furnish the room inside their skull with very little effort.

As members of a tribe, when people invest their identity in a cheap, consumer-packaged, political ideology, they like nothing better than to be reminded of how great their bundle of toilet paper is. This is true for right-wing bundles of crap and left-wing bundles of crap. Attack Surface happens to print its rolls on the left side of the house, and if it does anything beyond describing hacking-techniques well, it’s patting its ideology-addled audience on the back.

You bought the right brand!

Every character in Attack Surface is an ideological caricature. Its heroes are all young progressives. Its villains are all sell-outs to the military-industrial-police boogeyman that dominates left-wing paranoia the way deep-state fantasies and grooming dominate MAGA-world. It’s heroine, a first-generation Russian immigrant, teen-hacker, erstwhile data analyst, and big-breasted progressive who is dangerously close to selling out but finds redemption with the “Black-Brown Alliance” in Oakland, is possibly the worst heroine I have ever read in an adult novel.

In Cory Doctorow’s world, it is perfectly plausible that a first-generation Russian hacker would hang out with social justice activists, talk derisively about white people, and speak of her Latinx brothers and sisters.

Because of course it is.

In his left-wing paranoid alternate universe, Hispanics like being called Latinx and have decided their path to political power is to team up with blacks. A move that so scares the politicians in Oakland (who are all black and progressive in the world we live in), that they turn loose a set of killer self-driving cars to wipe out protestors.

Because of course they do.

Attack Surface lacks character, plot and sense. Every situation is breathtakingly stupid and implausible. Every action that the characters take is ridiculous. It exists not to tell a story, describe a life, or communicate any political ideas. It exists to feed the seemingly limitless appetite for flattery packaged as ideological garbage.

As his young data analyst is caught up in a bloody, out-of-control police action and riot somewhere in post-soviet Eastern Europe, here’s what Cory Doctorow provides as character development:

“Some people get overwhelmed by situations like that. I’ve seen it happen and I understand it. I’m not one of those people, though. My limbic system— the fight-or-flight response—and I are on speaking terms, but we’ve got an arrangement: it doesn’t bother me and I won’t bother it. So what I felt was urgency to get gone, but not fear. I felt for the people lying on the ground…”

Yeah, I know lots of data analysts who have that kind of arrangement with their limbic system in the middle of out-of-control street violence. Because all that time on the computer playing video games, writing software and crunching numbers makes us badass mercenary soldiers (except we feel bad for the people on the ground).

This is bad writing at any level in any genre. I’ve never read a Jackie Collins book, but I’m pretty sure she’d puke all over that paragraph. But it’s representative of the “character development” Attack Surface makes one endure.

Contrast this with a passage in City of God where a character tells of his father’s near-death in the trenches of WW1 as the Germans overrun his position and asks himself what his father was thinking:

“You don’t think in photographs, you don’t think in

Flashbacks, as the movies claim

(what else can they do?)

You may see a gesture that fades before it appears

Leaving only a sense of its fidelity

If you hear a voice it is a sample, barely realized

More like the sound of a moral nature.

The thought of someone is a not visualized

And almost inaudible

Presence in your mind

—perhaps not even in your mind—

Of your own assembled affections

An order of sensations very much your own,

Like a wordless song you sing to yourself

Or a fervent prayer you do not bring to speech…

He lay pressed against the near trench wall

With an army of Huns hurdling over his prostrate form…

My father, hearing them in the adjoining angle

Of the zigzagged trench

Summoned up a last remembrance of the old world


He’d heard in the childhood on Stanton Street—

A Germanic dialect to hush and soften and make melodie

That language of expectorated shrapnel—

And shouted from cupped hands, re-Prussianed, he hoped,

An order to the approaching soldiers

To stop their goddamn malingering

And move out before he had their asses court-martialed

Or words to that effect,

Which they did, to his astonishment. And then he lay

Against the other trench wall as a few minutes later

The Huns leapt over in retreat

A counterattack having been mounted which would

By midnight leave everything as it had been before

Except of course for the thousands of fresh


A fact my father understood when, roused up

By the Limeys and the Frogs,

He climbed over the top and ran forward, bayonet poised

Into the littered sulfrous hell

Of No-Man’s-Land

A maniac animal scream issuing from him.”

There is more to marvel at and think about in those 300 words than in all of Attack Surface. There is language to move us beyond the cliches of language – how we think, how we visualize, what we see. There is a great story told in full. There is a true, human description of courage, how it works, and what it really means. There is a 100 word encapsulation of the madness of WW1. And there is a final scream of rage at what we endure in life. There is no snark. There are no characters telling us how they have an arrangement with their limbic system.

Yes. I know this is unfair. I’ve never in my life written anything half as good as that passage above from City of God and never will. But the difference is not between success and failure or skill and incompetence.

City of God is trying to work out something important about how we might live and what the challenges of life are. It’s trying hard, too, to do that by getting inside the lives of people who are recognizably human and have problems and interests we share. And, of course, E. L. Doctorow never writes as if language doesn’t matter or as if he doesn’t have to reward your attention.

Yet City of God is not a remarkable success. It fails at much of what it’s trying to do. Its plot fizzles. None of its characters quite make you love them enough to take their predicament as your own. And none of the answers the novel gives to finding the City of God seem very compelling – even, I think, to the author.

Attack Surface, on the other hand, does exactly what its author intends. It serves up a plateful of ideological pap carefully tailored to please and flatter its audience.

And that’s why comparing Attack Surface to City of God may be disproportionate but isn’t unfair. Because the important difference isn’t about what each Doctorow succeeded in writing or could do with the English language, but what they were each trying to do with their novels. City of God is admirable though it fails in most of its ambitions, and Attack Surface is execrable, though it succeeds quite well at adding another roll of toilet paper to someone’s ideological crap-house.