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Cory Doctorow Nails Dot-Com Tech and its Fat Cats in ‘The Bezzle’

In a Q&A, the digital-rights advocate talks about the cases of greed and corruption that inspired his new Marty Hench thriller / BY John Lorinc / February 23rd, 2024

The Bezzle is the second installment of Cory Doctorow‘s Martin Hench series, which stars a Silicon Valley forensic accountant with an active moral compass and impressive data-mining skills. In the novel, Hench and a high-living friend, a dot-com millionaire named Scott Warms, find themselves tangled up in what turns out to be an intricately layered and drug-soaked conspiracy involving crooked private equity investors and a notorious privatization industry. 

The story opens on Avalon, an island off the coast of California, that is a playground for the ultra-rich, but also the setting for a surreal Ponzi-scheme involving fast food: The working-class inhabitants of Avalon have been duped into a get-rich-quick ploy that entices them to smuggle fast food from chains like In-N-Out Burger onto Avalon, where they are banned. 

After Marty Hench comes across the brains behind this strange fraud, both he and Warms try to undermine it and find themselves targeted by a cabal of ruthless and well-connected investors, with Warms ending up in prison. 


Cory Doctorow


Zoomer spoke with Doctorow, a prolific blogger, novelist and tech watchdog, from his L.A. home about forensic accounting, privately run prisons and AI.

JOHN LORINC: Can you talk about your decision to make Marty Hench a forensic accountant?

CORY DOCTOROW: It came from hearing and reading forensic accountants discussing the Panama Papers and subsequent large leaks. They had such a fascinating perspective, and really made clear the distinction between “things that are hard to understand because they’re complex” and “things that are complex so that they’ll be hard to understand.” 

JL: Privately run prisons, from a plot perspective, are attractive villains and have generated a lot of critical news coverage. What about this industry speaks to this moment?

CD: Well, they seem unkillable and keep getting worse. Minnesota just banned prison tech for [personal] calls. The prison-tech sector responded by jacking prices on everything else [like items from the commissary]. The sector has dwindled to two large private equity-backed giants that have each gobbled up half the sector. Their depredations grow worse by the day.

And they are such an apt way to elucidate the theory of the Shitty Technology Adoption Curve: That is, that every bad technology is trialed on the people with the least agency. The terrible, dystopian future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed. Prisoners are the top early adopters of the worst technology that the rest of us will suffer under in years to come.

JL: What The Bezzle does, which a lot of really good procedurals do, is tell this complicated crime story that’s got a conspiracy quality to it. Your characters get caught up in this big plot that involves many players. Tell me about that approach in the era of conspiracy and conspiratorial politics. 

CD: People don’t trust institutions because their institutions fail them. This creates a void where you can’t know what’s true on your own. You’re not going to figure out whether vaccines are safe or not. But you also don’t trust the people who are supposed to do that. 

There’s a great quote in Naomi Klein’s book Doppelganger, that anti-Semitism is “the socialism of fools.” If you don’t have the patience to read Marx and find out about how the finance system actually works and how the capital classes [the bourgeoisie] are mobilized, you can instead find a caricature, like a Nazi-era caricature of a Jewish banker with horns, or just ascribe all the evils in the world to a thousand people at Davos, as opposed to a system.

JL: This kind of fiction is so appealing because you can open all these doors and there are these connections. In real life, most people don’t personally experience these things. But you read a lot about conspiracies.

CD: I think there is a very powerful narrative that is every bit as attractive as the narrative of the one string-puller – the one of the rotten system. There’s a little subplot in The Bezzle where I talk about [hacktivist] Aaron Swartz, who killed himself just over 10 years ago over a case that was initiated by him publishing public domain court records that you otherwise have to pay to see. The story of how this happened to Aaron isn’t a conspiracy of power in the simplistic, mustache-twirling way. 

It’s rather that, with white-shoe lawyers like that, you can’t access court records unless you have a lot of money – even though they know they belong to the public. Aaron had previously done something that really embarrassed the FBI, so when they had a chance to get him, they really threw the book at him. He was facing 35 years in prison; he was 23 and all he had done was download scientific articles that he was allowed to see

It’s not a conspiracy in the sense of Lex Luthor in his lair. It’s a bunch of people invested in a system that does well by them at the expense of the rest of us. I think that makes for a chewy plot.

JL: One of the things that struck me about The Bezzle is that you situated it in the post-dot-com era, 20 years ago. Talk a bit about the relatability of old technology.

CD: If you’re a science fiction writer, spending time thinking about old technology is the same as the poet who keeps the skull on their desk. You know, memento mori, “someday, you too, shall pass.” 

But I also think that we did undergo a sea change in technology after the dot-com boom. Specific policies produced the circumstance in which technology became dominated by platforms; and then the platforms locked in their users and their business customers. And then they hijacked those relationships and entered a steady state of decay.

The Marty Hench novels are a really good way to understand that arc. There is a narrative about people like me in the ’90s: that we didn’t understand  technology could harm people. We said, “let’s give it to everybody,” and now we’re waking up surprised that technology can enact harm. There might be some people who were like that, but nobody founds the Electronic Frontier Foundation [Doctorow is a special advisor to the group, which protects digital rights online] or works for it because they think everything will be fine with technology, right? That was an expression of profound, overwhelming alarm with the harmful potential of technology.

Marty Hench’s character spends 40 years in Silicon Valley. The next book in the series comes out next February. It travels back to 1982, when he arrives in San Francisco during the PC [personal computer] bubble and the story finds him working for a dirty PC company that’s a pyramid scheme that preys on faith groups.

It’s a really powerful way to tell the story with these different snapshots [in time], because he’s kind of the Zelig of high-tech finance crime. I have two more books on the drafting board. Anytime I get to thinking about some unbelievable scam I lived through, I’m like, “Oh yeah, this is where Marty fits. I’m gonna stick him right there.” It also means you can read [the Hench novels] out of order. They stand alone. 

JL: What is Marty Hench’s take on AI? 

CD: Will Marty ever talk about AI? I don’t know for sure. But I think if I were to ever connect Marty to AI, I would tell it as a story in one of the earlier AI bubbles, and make it an allegory about the current one. We forget that we did this [already] four times and we’re still doing it, right? 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


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