Fifteen hours of flight time in one week can afford you many things. Watching the endless amounts of free in-flight entertainment, staring at the mountains going by, analyzing complex worksheets for Gods know what, or pick up a good book. I chose the last option and was very glad I picked up ZerØes by Chuck Wendig.
This multi-perspective novel is not one of his latest; it’s been around for about three years already. That kind of time lapse can be a lifetime in the world of high tech sci-fi writing. This story though stands up to that expiration, for now. I don’t mean because the technology has become outdated.
Wendig references some platforms that could have become outdated in three years (Facebook/Twitter) and likely will sometime in the next decade. The story focuses more on the personalities of the hackers involved, the kits they use actually to do the hacks, and the faults that allow them to exploit vulnerabilities. Exploring those outlets and focusing on that end of the storytelling with hacker culture is what makes a good hacker story.
If you want a movie example of what I’m talking about, we can look at the good, the bad and the ugly. The ugly is Swordfish. I thought it was an entertaining movie, a bank heist with Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry. Great premise, but the execution kind of sucked. It only focused on one type of hacking and the interfaces used were extremely unrealistic, at that time and now. You don’t see anyone with a dozen screens designing a worm via visual interfaces.
The bad is Hackers; you’ll remember this one because of Angelina Jolie. The villain was letting a bunch of hackers take the fall for his hijacking oil tankers and trying to exact a multi-million dollar ransom or else it would capsize the boats. This movie got several points for style and showing many different kinds of hackers, but still fails the sniff test for Hollywood trying to make it look cool with the Gibson interface being some crazy 3-D graphical structure.
The good is a movie that other IT geeks will agree has stood the test of time and has some huge names in it: Sneakers. This movie came out in 1992 and regardless of it being 26 years old, still feels applicable for most everything. The reason for that is what ZerØes got right too. It covered the different kinds of hackers and the sorts of social interactions they all have. We get shown hard-core kernel crackers that go sniffing ports and looking for minor memory vulnerabilities that can be exploited and gain system access.
You also get people that are into phreaking (phone hacking via many methods), trolls, intermediate hackers, distributed denial of service hackers (DDoS), script kiddies, and the ever favorite social exploiter.
Start reading old issues of 2600 or attending Defcon every year and you will see folks that exhibit each or multiple of these styles. The great ones will be masters of all of these skills. In Wendig’s book, we see five core hackers that each exhibit multiple of these abilities, though some start as just one and learn more over the course of the novel. That’s what makes it a good hacker story though, not the sci-fi quantum computing theory behind it or the Big Brother government villain they are fighting that feels like a standard trope character to a hacker story. What made it great was being able to see the inner social workings of the various hacker tribes and how they interact.
That was the core of what made it feel like a good hacker story that reads well after three years and probably 15 years from now.
Ok, the creepy Big Brother villain and the reveal of the reality behind that creepy Big Brother villain were great too. Read it for the sci-fi aspect of that if nothing else. For my money though, the best parts of the book were the social interactions between the hackers and researching the accuracy of how those hacks play out. No goofy GUI description, no talk of a few keystrokes to penetrate a massive government server. The fact that he could talk about the characters reading through lines of code they’d hijacked to find where they could exploit faults. This book is a how-to for writing a hacker sci-fi that will pass the IT worker sniff test, I’d recommend it to anyone.