When crypto meant cryptography

by Maria on May 11, 2023

I recently caught up with an activist friend I’ve known for twenty-five years. We got into this stuff at the tail end of what were then called the crypto wars, a set of legal and policy battles to free strong encryption from the US and UK’s security services and allow it to be used to secure the internet. (If our guys had lost, there would never have been any of what we used to call “e-commerce”, remember that?) We drank very good coffee and talked about the weirdness of aging into and then (for me) out of the management side of tech policy, and reminisced about people who’d been central both in fighting and passing the laws that created the UK’s unusually comprehensive surveillance system. We also shared ways to exercise with fewer joint injuries and laughed a lot about being grumpy old fucks. We made some pretty fine distinctions between being jaded – neither of us feels that – but markedly less excitable than people for whom the latest state efforts to cripple encryption are a novel outrage. We briefly tried to figure out if we were on the fifth or the sixth UK attempt to backdoor end-to-end encrypted messaging. Sitting down with an old friend who profoundly gets political storytelling, from being so many times around the same apple cart, and can mine hard-won self-knowledge seemingly without limit was a pleasure my twenty-five year old self wouldn’t have even known to anticipate. So when I sat down last week to re-read Cory Doctorow’s Red Team Blues, whose t-shirt slogan is ‘crypto means cryptography’ and is about a battle-hardened old fart, I was primed to enjoy it at least as much as my first go-round.

Henry wrote about Red Team Blues here a couple of weeks ago. We’d both been talking about it and emailing with Cory. I have a strong reader’s debt to this extremely fun and thought-provoking noir-ish crypto thriller. When my brain was completely scrambled, Red Team Blues basically taught me to read again for joy, no less.

After my first dose of covid, then through long covid and that torrid 2020 summer of pretty much universal trauma-brain when people could barely complete sentences, let alone paragraphs, I just could not read novels. I put down Tim Maugham’s Infinite Detail some time in March and have never been able to pick it up again. Way too close to the bone. I wasn’t not reading. My sisters and I ran a weekly fantasy/science fiction/political philosophy book club for teenagers in our wider family – basically a wrap-around programme for some UK state-schooled teens we love, whose school had given up teaching. We would do a month’s themed reading based on a 150-ish page nonfiction book (The Prince, The Communist Manifesto, Utopia, etc.) and a couple of speculative novels that took up some of the same ideas (Phillip Pullman, Patrick Ness, lots of Ursula le Guin) and just talk them to death. We had so. much. fun. But months in, I could still only manage re-reads of YA-adjacent SFF I’d loved before, and no new novels at all. Then Red Team Blues popped into my inbox.

RTB was still in draft and Cory was hitting up beta-readers. I took a run at it and just read through to the end in breathless disbelief that this was still possible. It starts off in media res and just keeps going. In retrospect, fate could not have presented a book more primed to rekindle the love. Its viewpoint character makes you feel in good hands from the outset, and the story just charges headlong to the end. At least, that’s what I felt on that read. The hero, Marty Hench, is a sixty-something forensic accountant who excels at finding money and connections people have tried very hard to hide, mostly in and around Silicon Valley. The blockchain, with its public transactions, hero-bro fantasies and planetary level liquidity is a gift to his profession. Within a hundred words Marty’s off on a quest to help an old friend who’s lost some encryption keys of global financial consequence and criminal interest.

First time I read RTB, I felt like I’d hopped on a high-speed train. But second time round I realised there are actually significant pauses between the more kinetic events of the story, and it’s just because these decelerated bits are so interesting and sociologically textured that I’d not had any sense of longeur. The plot is good and serves the novel well, but the sense of being inside Silicon Valley’s anthropological weirdness was a lot of what kept me in contact with it throughout. RTB is about the well-paid service class who keep criminal monsters in legitimate-seeming business. Marty has made a career of ‘red teaming’ their financial chicanery, i.e. being the attacker who finds where the money is hidden. But he doesn’t work for the IRS, and the only cases we hear about are where he’s helped Silicon Valley billionaires out of tight spots. As Henry wrote, RTB tells you a lot about cryptocurrencies and white collar crime and does it in an incredibly entertaining way. Marty travels in and around San Francisco trying to find some stolen keys so he can keep alive a friend whose blockbuster cryptocurrency enables global criminality and mayhem. All the same, RTB is clear who the bad guys are; cryptocurrencies make little economic sense without all the money-laundering, and their pointless, energy-guzzling proof-of-work calculations are a crime against humanity.

RTB is Dickensian in how it shoots up and down the snakes and ladders of San Francisco’s gamified dystopia of income inequality, one moment whizzing up the ear-poppingly fast elevator to a billionaire’s hardened fortress, the next sleeping under a bridge in a homeless encampment, and trying to get power and wifi in a tax-starved city that would prefer you to simply die. A bit like the centrifugal legal case of Bleak House, RTB spins out from the self-serving white collar pathology that powers infinite procedural excess, both for the white shoe lawyers who service organised crime and the government agencies tripping over each other to maintain a steady state of violence. Also like Bleak House, RTB creates a whole world through Marty’s glancing contacts with supposedly minor characters. These people stay with you the longest; the warm but canny family running a Mexican restaurant by the side of a road, the Uber drivers who’ve heard it all but are still open to surprise, the people who live permanently unhoused and measure precisely how much they can help a stranger.

A Mary Gaitskill essay on Bleak House pinpoints that novel’s energy source as something that bubbles under and out of the minor characters; “In a larger sense they (the larger than life characters) are faithful to the comic reality that we spend our lives as conduits for forces we don’t understand, and which form our characters in a sometimes extreme fashion over which we have limited control.” I think that works – and RTB has a similar psychic economy – because the minor characters aren’t ciphers. They’re vital emissions from the seething energy and wry curiosity of the storyworld itself. They cannot help but break through. RTB’s scenes between Marty and the unhoused people he relies on dance on the redline of condescending gratitude and swooping white saviours, but stay true by not patronising or sanctifying anyone. The people feel real. You feel a pang when they return to their lives, like when a holidaying family Marty’s befriended leave the trailer park early one morning. Their main stories continue off-stage.

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. RTB doesn’t claim to be the kind of novel that makes this argument, but I think it’s a gorgeous rejection of the idea that long-form fiction is about individual subjectivity and the interior life. It’s about people as pinballs. They don’t just reveal things about the other objects they hit; their constant action and reaction reveals the walls that hold them all in.

What makes it all work is that Marty has a lot of self-knowledge and only a little vanity. He’s got a blindspot for the moral failings of his friends and lovers about the size of a tax haven’s undeclared GDP, but he’s unjaded, curious, methodical, and committed in each moment. The book notices the shapes people’s lives take and how they respond to that. Marty enjoys food and drink, and never worries about his clothes, choosing for convenience to present as a centrist schlub. He knows who he is and meets people with disarming honesty and a sense of his own limits, which invites them to open up to him. (That said, I don’t love how irresistible he is to the ladies, even though I know it’s a noir thing. This really is the tyranny of low expectations in action.)

There’s so much grounded observation to enjoy that I didn’t initially notice when the plot continues elsewhere and Marty’s only job is to stay alive while others fight it out. It’s so good on the textures and sensations of American west coast late capitalism. Like, how Silicon Valley is somewhere people sneer at spending money on clothes and shoes but think nothing of dropping almost a million dollars on a campervan. Or, rich people’s bodies are so different that average people look tired and bilious to them. Or how – and my activist friend and I concur – people who build backdoors hate when you call them backdoors. They’d rather say ‘undo button’, or as every time this comes up in the UK, ‘limited and lawful access’. It’s fascinating on the psychology of red and blue teaming, a central concept in cybersecurity, and deftly unpacks the maddening nature of Schneier’s Law– how anyone can build a secure system that they themselves can’t break, so you build systems that are impervious only to people stupider than you.

I don’t know how RTB manages the trick of speeding you along while you absorb detail after detail of a wholly realised world and – this is key – the systems that comprise it, but it does. If I haven’t conveyed this already, it’s a blast. I remember reading it that first time and just putting down my pages to chuckle with sheer joy at the pleasure of reading it. It made me love reading again when I thought I’d forgotten how. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for this book, and I’m eager to read more of Marty’s pre-history.

Second time round I noticed how so much is about seeing and not seeing, being seen and unseen, and how these sleights of hand are a source and the expression of power. It makes sense, with Marty being a forensic accountant who works to find things people have hidden. Once you notice it, seeing is everywhere. The plot hinges on encrypted keys that can disappear transactions on the block chain, rendering the ‘trust-less’ technology wholly useless. Encryption itself is about making significant numbers invisible in a mess of randomness. Marty reads almost invisible clues to see the criminal enablers hiding in plain sight. Silicon Valley veterans stay friends with less wealthy peers by dressing the same and never saying the actual numbers of money they have, but everyone knows, anyway. Marty hides in plain sight, too, with his Dad jeans and brown electric Leaf car. He is slightly cursed in how much he sees; he can never un-see three dead people from early in the novel, he unconsciously registers wedding rings and sleeps with people he shouldn’t, and like the noir detective he truly is, his real super-power is seeing the women others overlook.

RTB is about seeing what the social compact tries to keep invisible; unhoused people with nowhere to wash, the power difference between genders that takes about a billion dollars for a woman of colour to buy herself out of, and how the criminals’ well-paid fixers are ultimately caught out by what they’ve pretended not to see, even as they worked furiously to hide it. As Marty comments, homelessness is the true American vanishing point, but also the condition in which you can assert no privacy. RTB focuses sharply on how the subtleties of getting to choose when you’re seen, and by whom, are determined by brute application of money and power. After a week living in a pup tent, Marty says “just a few days of being simultaneously invisible and exposed had been a weight on me I didn’t notice until it had been lifted.” It’s an invisible burden to be unseen and seen in ways you can’t control.

By the end of the novel, the world looks different to Marty and he takes up an offer to go wider than an accountant’s worm’s eye view. He tries to teach some people to see things they’ve tried hard not to. The red and blue teams look at the exact same system, trying to get at what it’s built to hide, but it couldn’t possibly appear more different to each.



Aardvark Cheeselog 05.11.23 at 11:16 pm

OK I read the first 4 paragraphs and skimmed the rest to the end to say, you sold me a book. My reading took a blow to the head in 2020 that it has yet to recover from, and novels in particular have been impossible for me since. Thanks for the heads-up.


Maria 05.12.23 at 8:00 am

Oh superb, Aardvark. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!


Anders Widebrant 05.12.23 at 4:23 pm

“(If our guys had lost, there would never have been any of what we used to call “e-commerce”, remember that?)”

It says something about the toxicity of peak crypto that I found myself almost able to justify an argument against encryption in general.


Lathrop 05.12.23 at 5:00 pm

The earlier mention of Red Team Blues motivated me to find it at the local public library and I found it every bit as fascinating as you did, and thanks for articulating some insights I noticed dimly. Hench certainly was a compassionate man with laudable generosity both emotional and fiscal towards the homeless, or poor, or merely normal people he moves among; and the overlay of or bridging to the invisible empire of the fabulously wealthy that his misadventure involves nicely portrays a basic reality we don’t have access to. The powers his fortune provides (plus smarts) allow him to weave in and out of situations that would have most of us tapped out in five minutes. (I agree about the access to women, though he was pretty decent through it.)

I would read more adventures of Marty Hench.


KT2 05.13.23 at 11:54 pm

Cory D;
“I’m getting a similar thrill from the domain experts who’ve been reviewing Red Team Blues. This week, Maria Farrell posted her Crooked Timber review, “When crypto meant cryptography”:

“So her review means a lot to me in general, but I was overwhelmed to read her describe how Red Team Blues taught her to “read again for joy” after long covid “completely scrambled [her] brain.”


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