Pluralistic: The true post-cyberpunk hero is a noir forensic accountant (17 Apr 2024)

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A portrait of William Gibson affably gazing straight into the camera, surrounded by darkness. It was been superimposed over a neon-glowing cyberpunk cityscape. In the background is a Matrix-style 'code waterfall.'

The true post-cyberpunk hero is a noir forensic accountant (permalink)

I was reared on cyberpunk fiction, I ended up spending 25 years at my EFF day job working at the weird edge of tech and human rights, even as I wrote sf that tried to fuse my love of cyberpunk with my urgent, lifelong struggle over who computers do things for and who they do them to.

That makes me an official "post-cyberpunk" writer (TM). Don't take my word for it: I'm in the canon:

One of the editors of that "post-cyberpunk" anthology was John Kessel, who is, not coincidentally, the first writer to expose me to the power of literary criticism to change the way I felt about a novel, both as a writer and a reader:

It was Kessel's 2004 Foundation essay, "Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality," that helped me understand litcrit. Kessel expertly surfaces the subtext of Card's Ender's Game and connects it to Card's politics. In so doing, he completely reframed how I felt about a book I'd read several times and had considered a favorite:

This is a head-spinning experience for a reader, but it's even wilder to experience it as a writer. Thankfully, the majority of literary criticism about my work has been positive, but even then, discovering something that's clearly present in one of my novels, but which I didn't consciously include, is a (very pleasant!) mind-fuck.

A recent example: Blair Fix's review of my 2023 novel Red Team Blues which he calls "an anti-finance finance thriller":

Fix – a radical economist – perfectly captures the correspondence between my hero, the forensic accountant Martin Hench, and the heroes of noir detective novels. Namely, that a noir detective is a kind of unlicensed policeman, going to the places the cops can't go, asking the questions the cops can't ask, and thus solving the crimes the cops can't solve. What makes this noir is what happens next: the private dick realizes that these were places the cops didn't want to go, questions the cops didn't want to ask and crimes the cops didn't want to solve ("It's Chinatown, Jake").

Marty Hench – a forensic accountant who finds the money that has been disappeared through the cells in cleverly constructed spreadsheets – is an unlicensed tax inspector. He's finding the money the IRS can't find – only to be reminded, time and again, that this is money the IRS chooses not to find.

This is how the tax authorities work, after all. Anyone who followed the coverage of the big finance leaks knows that the most shocking revelation they contain is how stupid the ruses of the ultra-wealthy are. The IRS could prevent that tax-fraud, they just choose not to. Not for nothing, I call the Martin Hench books "Panama Papers fanfic."

I've read plenty of noir fiction and I'm a long-term finance-leaks obsessive, but until I read Fix's article, it never occurred to me that a forensic accountant was actually squarely within the noir tradition. Hench's perfect noir fit is either a happy accident or the result of a subconscious intuition that I didn't know I had until Fix put his finger on it.

The second Hench novel is The Bezzle. It's been out since February, and I'm still touring with it (Chicago tonight! Then Turin, Marin County, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, etc). It's paying off – the book's a national bestseller.

Writing in his newsletter, Henry Farrell connects Fix's observation to one of his own, about the nature of "hackers" and their role in cyberpunk (and post-cyberpunk) fiction:

Farrell cites Bruce Schneier's 2023 book, A Hacker’s Mind: How the Powerful Bend Society’s Rules and How to Bend Them Back:

Schneier, a security expert, broadens the category of "hacker" to include anyone who studies systems with an eye to finding and exploiting their defects. Under this definition, the more fearsome hackers are "working for a hedge fund, finding a loophole in financial regulations that lets her siphon extra profits out of the system." Hackers work in corporate offices, or as government lobbyists.

As Henry says, hacking isn't intrinsically countercultural ("Most of the hacking you might care about is done by boring seeming people in boring seeming clothes"). Hacking reinforces – rather than undermining power asymmetries ("The rich have far more resources to figure out how to gimmick the rules"). We are mostly not the hackers – we are the hacked.

For Henry, Marty Hench is a hacker (the rare hacker that works for the good guys), even though "he doesn’t wear mirrorshades or get wasted chatting to bartenders with Soviet military-surplus mechanical arms." He's a gun for hire, that most traditional of cyberpunk heroes, and while he doesn't stand against the system, he's not for it, either.

Henry's pinning down something I've been circling around for nearly 30 years: the idea that though "the street finds its own use for things," Wall Street and Madison Avenue are among the streets that might find those uses:

Henry also connects Martin Hench to Marcus Yallow, the hero of my YA Little Brother series. I have tried to make this connection myself, opining that while Marcus is a character who is fighting to save an internet that he loves, Marty is living in the ashes of the internet he lost:

But Henry's Marty-as-hacker notion surfaces a far more interesting connection between the two characters. Marcus is a vehicle for conveying the excitement and power of hacking to young readers, while Marty is a vessel for older readers who know the stark terror of being hacked, by the sadistic wolves who're coming for all of us:

Both Marcus and Marty are explainers, as am I. Some people say that exposition makes for bad narrative. Those people are wrong:

"Explaining" makes for great fiction. As Maria Farrell writes in her Crooked Timber review of The Bezzle, the secret sauce of some of the best novels is "information about how things work. Things like locks, rifles, security systems":

Where these things are integrated into the story's "reason and urgency," they become "specialist knowledge [that] cuts new paths to move through the world." Hacking, in other words.

This is a theme Paul Di Filippo picked up on in his review of The Bezzle for Locus:

Heinlein was always known—and always came across in his writings—as The Man Who Knew How the World Worked. Doctorow delivers the same sense of putting yourself in the hands of a fellow who has peered behind Oz’s curtain. When he fills you in lucidly about some arcane bit of economics or computer tech or social media scam, you feel, first, that you understand it completely and, second, that you can trust Doctorow’s analysis and insights.

Knowledge is power, and so expository fiction that delivers news you can use is novel that makes you more powerful – powerful enough to resist the hackers who want to hack you.

Henry and I were both friends of Aaron Swartz, and the Little Brother books are closely connected to Aaron, who helped me with Homeland, the second volume, and wrote a great afterword for it (Schneier wrote an afterword for the first book). That book – and Aaron's afterword – has radicalized a gratifying number of principled technologists. I know, because I meet them when I tour, and because they send me emails. I like to think that these hackers are part of Aaron's legacy.

Henry argues that the Hench books are "purpose-designed to inspire a thousand Max Schrems – people who are probably past their teenage years, have some grounding in the relevant professions, and really want to see things change."

(Schrems is the Austrian privacy activist who, as a law student, set in motion the events that led to the passage of the EU's General Data Privacy Regulation:)

Henry points out that William Gibson's Neuromancer doesn't mention the word "internet" – rather, Gibson coined the term cyberspace, which, as Henry says, is "more ‘capitalism’ than ‘computerized information'… If you really want to penetrate the system, you need to really grasp what money is and what it does."

Maria also wrote one of my all-time favorite reviews of Red Team Blues, also for Crooked Timber:

In it, she compares Hench to Dickens' Bleak House, but for the modern tech world:

You put the book down feeling it’s not just a fascinating, enjoyable novel, but a document of how Silicon Valley’s very own 1% live and a teeming, energy-emitting snapshot of a critical moment on Earth.

All my life, I've written to find out what's going on in my own head. It's a remarkably effective technique. But it's only recently that I've come to appreciate that reading what other people write about my writing can reveal things that I don't see.

(Image: Frédéric Poirot, CC BY-SA 2.0, modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

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This day in history (permalink)

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#10yrsago Army comes clean about its recruitment AI, accidentally discloses info about pedophile- and terrorist-catching chatbots that roam the net

#5yrsago The Antitrust Case Against Facebook: a turning point in the debate over Big Tech and monopoly

#5yrsago The sovereign nation of Iceland has finally invalidated the European trademark on “Iceland,” formerly held by a British discount grocery chain

#5yrsago Dentistry’s evidentiary vacuum allows profiteering butchers to raid our mouths for millions

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#5yrsago Effective July 15, British porn consumers will be required entrust their sexual tastes to private companies’ badly secured databases

#5yrsago We lost the fight for balance in the EU’s Copyright Directive, but here’s what we won

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#1yrago How tech does regulatory capture

Upcoming appearances (permalink)

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Recent appearances (permalink)

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Latest books (permalink)

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Upcoming books (permalink)

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

Colophon (permalink)

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Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

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