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BookBITS: “Red Team Blues” by Cory Doctorow

Book reviews are unusual for TidBITS, and I don’t intend to share my Libby activity with you regularly. But Cory Doctorow’s novel Red Team Blues merits mention. In part, that’s because the fictional world it depicts could be pulled from Silicon Valley headlines and backchannel forums of today. But I also found it intriguing based on some things that Cory has written about the role of fiction in the modern world.

I’m not close friends with Cory, and we’ve met in person only a handful of times. Nor have we exchanged significant amounts of email or interacted much in online communities. But we have orbited similar spaces in the Internet world for decades, him with Boing Boing, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and his books, and me with TidBITS, Info-Mac, the Internet Starter Kit, and Take Control. He’s one of those people who has long been a fixture of my Internet firmament, even if that means exchanging email only every 5 or 10 years.

Our last exchange came in 2020 after I read a piece he’d written for Slate titled “The Dangers of Cynical Sci-Fi Disaster Stories.” I was drawn in by the subtitle: “I’m changing how I write fiction—for the benefit of the real world.” I’m suspicious that our shared fictions subtly affect our responses to real-world problems, and that was the focus of Cory’s piece.

Made-up stories, even stories of impossible things, are ways for us to mentally rehearse our responses to different social outcomes. Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s conception of an intuition pump—“a thought experiment structured to allow the thinker to use their intuition to develop an answer to a problem”—suggests that fiction (which is, after all, an elaborate thought experiment) isn’t merely entertainment.

In response to that, I emailed Cory, writing:

I’ve long been uncomfortable with a great deal of mainstream entertainment, whether we’re talking about science fiction books, movies, TV shows, or video games. It’s easy to brush aside concerns by saying that people can tell the difference between fact and fiction, but I think our fiction has gotten so good and so compelling—and in the case of visual genres, so realistic—that at some low level, we really are having trouble separating what’s real from what’s imagined. The intuition pump is a nice way to encapsulate that. The stories may be compelling, but they seldom resonate with how I see real people acting in everyday life or address the messiness of the real-world issues we have to deal with.

His reply drew a fine-line distinction between how we act and how we expect others to act. We know we’re good people because we’re in our own heads. But we’re not in other people’s heads, so their actions are often mysterious, allowing the fiction we consume a stronger vote in how we imagine others might behave. He said:

I think there’s a subtle, crucial difference between the idea that fiction inspires us to violence and the idea that it makes us anticipate violence on the part of others.

In the Slate piece, he explains that he realized this after moving to California from firearm-free London, where he lived after growing up in Toronto. Initially, he was shocked by the prevalence of gun stores—did all his neighbors really possess lethal weapons? The gun stores faded into the background until the pandemic hit and people lined up around the block to buy handguns. Why? To protect themselves once civilization broke down. He writes in the article:

I think that our pulp fiction has done us a disservice, creating a commonsense assumption that we are one power failure away from Mad Max: Fury Road. The reality is ever so much messier, full of people trying to do the right thing—which still causes high-stakes, serious conflicts, but they’re conflicts of good faith and sincere disagreement.

The conflicts in Red Team Blues aren’t so much good faith and sincere disagreement, but each of the main parties acts rationally within its worldview, lending a frustrating sense of “Well, of course they’re going to do that” to the plot while leaving our hero to navigate the rocky rapids of a situation beyond his direct control.

Red Team Blues book cover

Red Team Blues is the present-day story of Martin Hench, a 67-year-old “digital forensic accountant” who specializes in recovering money squirreled away by modern-day thieves in cryptocurrencies, holding companies, and offshore accounts. He’s called in by Danny Lazer, a long-time friend who spent decades writing cryptographic code and battling with the NSA before hitting it big with a company that sold crypto libraries and workflows to the tech world. Lazer has leveraged his fortune to create Trustlesscoin, a new cryptocurrency that avoids the environmentally damaging proof-of-work approach by—with some poetic license—running code on the secure enclaves embedded in iPhones and other smartphones.

To have the option of rolling back an early mistake, something that’s generally impossible with a blockchain, Lazer has illicitly acquired the signing keys for the secure enclaves. The laptop containing those keys was stolen and Lazer’s hardware key was pickpocketed, meaning that the keys used by Apple, Samsung, and other manufacturers are in the wind, and the billion dollars in Trustlesscoin is at risk. Given that Hench’s fee is a flat 25% of the value of the recovered assets, $250 million is impossible to turn down.

Getting the MacGuffin laptop back is the first order of business, but Hench’s success there lands him in a war between a Mexican drug cartel and a powerful Azerbaijani family bent on revenge for the killing of a member who participated in the laptop theft. An ethically dubious Department of Homeland Security seems happy to let it all continue in the name of the status quo. Leads crop up, friends weave in and out of the plot, and Hench motors around northern California in the Unsalted Hash, a very slightly used forty-foot touring bus acquired in lieu of payment from a rock star whose manager absconded with $2 million. At 67, Hench avoids physical confrontation but isn’t above going to ground—literally—in a homeless camp when he needs to lie low for a few days.

I haven’t spent much time in San Francisco since Macworld Expo ended in 2014, but the Bay Area of Red Team Blues feels real, and I can’t help but wonder if Cory had first-person sources for his gut-wrenching depictions of homelessness. What felt the most real, however, were the characters. Not the specific people in the book, but the old tech world types. The aging crypto hacker, the data center security guy, the early-days secretary who works her way up through customer service and documentation to retire as a VP. (Whose finances Hench rescues from a grifter ex-husband, triggering a romance subplot.) I don’t know these people, but I know people like them, and Cory’s characters rang true. They’re part of that tech world orbit I was talking about, the outer rings of which contain those of us who connected via UUCP, harangued against DRM and shrink-wrap licenses, tilted at the windmill of digital identity, and worried that AOL would be the end of the Internet. Our lives aren’t as interesting as Martin Hench’s or his friends, but that’s merely because we don’t have Cory Doctorow scripting them. And the world of Red Team Blues may be more exciting than ours, but its solutions still prime your intuition pump with well-intentioned people trying to do the right thing rather than copping out with a hail of bullets.

If you have memories of that 1990s tech universe, you’ll enjoy Red Team Blues. Like all of Cory’s books, you can buy it direct as a DRM-free EPUB or MobiPocket. It’s $15, or $20 for an audiobook version read by (of course) Wil Wheaton, or a bit more if you want a dead-tree hardcover copy.

Oh, and the title? In the security world, red teams play offense—they attack systems and look for holes that will grant them entry. Blue teams are defensive; they design and maintain internal defenses and react to red team attacks. As Martin Hench—a lifelong red team guy—says, when you’re on the blue team, you have to be perfect, whereas the red team merely has to find a single mistake. Once you’ve finished the book, you may gain a better appreciation for what it’s like for companies like Apple that are stuck playing on the blue team.

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Comments About BookBITS: “Red Team Blues” by Cory Doctorow

Notable Replies

  1. I’ve read many of Cory’s books and always find something worthwhile to take away. Little Brother is YA fiction but I think it’s his best novel.

    I have Red Team Blues, I’ll read it once I’m done with “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” (which I recommend and which may appeal to those with Nineties video game nostalgia).

  2. Great minds read alike? :slight_smile: I just finished Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow as well, and I briefly considered writing about it, but in the end, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Red Team Blues.

    I have dipped into Cory’s fiction at various times over the years, but I may need to go through it in order now that it’s readily accessible in Libby.

  3. Adam

    You write

    "It’s easy to brush aside concerns by saying that people can tell the difference between fact and fiction, but I think our fiction has gotten so good and so compelling—and in the case of visual genres, so realistic—that at some low level, we really are having trouble separating what’s real from what’s imagined. "

    which reminds me of a situation I encounter daily. In our neighbourhood there are several schools and I regularly meet groups of youngsters – male and female – deeply immersed in their cellular phones completely disregarding their environment including me who has to find a way to pass through them. I wonder what their world view is.

    Following your recommendation I downloaded a sample of “Red Team Blues” by Doctorow from the Apple bookstore, but did not finish reading it. I cannot stand these over-confident characters that seem to be inclined to show off, instead of conversing constructively. Perhaps too much time has passed since I lived in the US.

    Best regards.


  4. I’m loving the book, not just because of the milieu it evokes so skillfully but because it’s homage to the work of the prolific crime fiction writer John D. MacDonald. Calling the mobile home the Unsalted Hash (after Travis McGee’s houseboat the Busted Flush) is just the tip of the iceberg…

    Also fascinating is Doctorow’s description of the way the 67-year-old protagonist’s modest lifestyle changes (or doesn’t) after he comes into possession of $250 million.

  5. I wonder whether it’s not just fiction which - in the terms of the article - primes the intuition pump. I’m thinking about the banalisation of violence by war reporting, by reporting in horrific detail the gun violence in the US and elsewhere, reporting the violence of the Mexican drug cartels, and so on. It’s not fiction but from comfortable suburbia it might just as well be.

    And then include the “influencers” - make-up (think: Kardashian), through “ideal” bodies, through body mutilation and self-harm, to Andrew Tate.

    There’s an awful lot of stuff out there which is priming an awful lot of pumps.

  6. I’ll listen to any book read by Wil Wheaton.

    Being old enough to have gone to several MacWorlds in the 90s, I look forward to revisiting the tech culture of the time.

  7. Sadly, I think you’re right. I have a friend who said he and his wife were seriously considering moving to Canada because they have elementary school-age daughters, and all the school shootings have made him anxious. He’s fully aware that this isn’t entirely rational—that the odds are still incredibly low—but some people have trouble controlling catastrophist thoughts.

    Personally, I avoid such stuff by not reading, listening to, or watching the news hardly at all. Actually newsworthy events always filter through from word of mouth or in side mentions from other types of coverage. I also like the Future Crunch newsletter, which primes the intuition pump with positive news, as does the Reasons to Be Cheerful newsletter.

  8. Funny how a similar topic came up on a completely unrelated forum.

    The discussion there was talking about cruise lines and some people were calling them death traps, citing high-profile news events like norovirus outbreaks and Carnival’s catastrophic breakdowns at sea a few years ago.

    But reactions like this are irrational. According to an article I found there were 323 cruise ships, worldwide in 2022. If you assume that each one makes 50 cruises a year (1 week each, with 2 weeks downtime each - what I consider a low estimate), that means there are over 16,000 trips a year. How many disasters do we read about in the news? I can’t remember any year where there were more than 3 major incidents, which comes to less 0.02%. Hardly the death-traps the press would like you to believe.

    I see this sort of thing whenever the press reports on something I know a lot about (or where I can take the time to research the raw data), so I can only assume that they are doing the same thing about the hundreds of topic I don’t know much about.

    So it’s not very surprising (to me, at least) that the public now believes the press is deliberately trying to mislead them.

  9. And it’s also troubling that such a large percentage of people believe that there’s malicious intent here—that the media wants to mislead—rather than the far more likely explanation of articles misleading through a combination of ignorance (lack of statistical awareness, say), laziness (the effort of researching), and greed (if it bleeds, it leads).

    Perhaps that’s why I was so taken with Cory’s article about fiction feeding intuition pumps because fiction authors get to make everything up, whereas journalists usually stick to something at least resembling the facts.

    Maybe content creators of all types need to sign on to something akin to the Hippocratic Oath.

  10. “ Being old enough to have gone to several MacWorlds in the 90s, I look forward to revisiting the tech culture of the time.”

    And I have very fond memories of the Ice Cream Socials Adam sponsored after the MacWorld shows in NYC.

    I also attended some MacWorlds in San Francisco, and these were more focused on b2b. I remember in around 1985-86 when a presenter debuted Mac’s ability to create color spaces and profiles; every attendee’s jaw dropped.

  11. I only went to San Francisco. If B2B refers to business-to-business, that wasn’t the impression I came away with. I mostly remember staying at the Press Club, a rather elderly hotel, and wiring my 512K Mac modem into the phone receptacle, as there were no phone jacks. Mostly I went to HyperCard presentations. An application I dearly loved, and in my opinion Apple botched its handling of it very badly.

    I was too shy to go to any of the parties :|

  12. You are correct! I thought about it some more, and it was the Seybold shows, not MacWorld I attended in San Francisco when print digital publishing production was just getting off the ground around 1984, and Macs very much, and very quickly, began changing the world. They were initially focused on prepress print and other graphics. After a very few years they added in multi media.

    The MacWorld shows in New York were more broadly focused, and covered both consumer and general b2b stuff. But attendees in the SF and NYC Seybold’s shows got to see Steve Jobs showcasing Mac’s amazing powers. Adam’s Ice Cream Socials during NYC MacWorlds were so much fun.

  13. Yeah, as someone who went to all the Macworld Expos (with one except in 1996, I think), I can say that there was no general distinction between them in terms of location. San Francisco may have had more parties because more people were familiar with the city and lived nearby, making organization easier.

    They all seem very far away now.

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