/ Cory Doctorow / 5 am Tue, Aug 18 2015
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  • Chuck Wendig's Zeroes: a hacker technothriller in the War Games lineage

    Chuck Wendig's Zeroes: a hacker technothriller in the War Games lineage

    Chuck Wendig's new technothriller Zeroes is a hacker misfit tale in the lineage of War Games and Sneakers, true to the spirit (and often, the minutae) of security work, and exciting as hell to boot.

    The story revolves around a mismatched team of hackers -- a hick social engineer; a streetwise urban carder; a foulmouthed troll; an ethical hacktivist with ties to the Syrian resistance; and an antiquated survivalist cypherpunk prepper gun-nut -- who are arm-twisted into going to work as penetration-testers at a super-secret government facility called the Hunting Lodge. Once they arrive, they quickly learn that they're the least promising team in the operation, second-fiddlers to the living legends who've already been kidnapped/threatened into working on the project -- whatever that is.

    Writing about hacking is really hard. The core tasks of hacking are simply not very cinematic, nor are they enormously interesting to observe closely. Largely, they consist of long sessions of careful, quiet, tedious trial-and-error, followed by the anticlimax of getting a root prompt or successfully opening a mostly innocuous file that has a few clues that can be used to pry loose another, slightly more interesting file.

    But while hacking is dull, hackers are fascinating. The anthropology and ethnography of how hacker collectives divide up their work, figure out how to trust each other while still minimizing the risk of exposure, and cheer each other on/demoralize each other with trash talk are a peek into a fantastic, paranoid, semi-criminal underground that never changes.

    That's why books like anthropologist Gabriella Coleman's Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy are so successful: they revolve around technology, but they tell the story as an anthropological case-study, using human relationships to put the technology in context.

    Zeroes is very much in this tradition, and it's the same tactic that makes perennial hacker favorites like 1998's Hackers so evergreen -- the technology has moved on, but the questions raised by attacking, exploring, tweaking and securing that technology are only more relevant with every passing day.

    Wendig's technological choices ring very true through most of the book -- a lot of this feels like stuff you might hear presented at Defcon or dumped by a Snowden-Mark-II whistleblower. The Zeroes have been brought in to work on something called TYPHON, which, it seems, is a predictive AI surveillance tool that is supposed to replace the grotesquely inaccurate DHS watchlisting procedure and other tea-leaf-reading components of the global war on terror.

    But Typhon's exact nature is mysterious, sinister, and threatening. It's clear from pretty early on that even the Hunting Lodge's top brass aren't entirely clear on what Typhon is, nor how all the work done by Lodge teams fits together. By the time the Zeroes work out the details, there's already bullets flying, and the story banks hard into a second act that gets into some serious Terminator/Matrix territory, the kind of thing that plays an open chord across all the strings of our collective anxieties about power, money, and political corruption.

    The third act is an endless lunatic drum-solo of action-adventure played on an array of crashing symbols and high-hats. Wendig clearly had a lot of fun thinking up ways of topping himself when it came to new ways that an all-pervasive technological adversary could make life horrifying for a plucky band of adventurers. It slips over into silly in places, but it's never stupid, and it's always great fun. You're gonna like this one.

    Zeroes [Chuck Wendig/Harper]

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