It was a beautiful seventy-degree night in late August. At two a.m., a young woman wearing one red sneaker, one orange sneaker, jeans, and a big, baggy button-down shirt stood in front of the public computer terminal in the empty lobby of her temporary dorm. She squinted, studying the screen. “Choose your username,” it said.
Her first day at MIT —- and already a test.
Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called “Alien” by Jeremy N. Smith is a strange book. It is the biography of a hacker, but it is not written in the style of a biography. Instead, it reads more like a thriller, with short, easy-to-read sentences and a lot of dialogue. The book does not spend time on broad cultural issues nor does it seek to place the narrative within a larger historical context. Aficionados of non-fiction are used to well-sourced exact quotes, and this book is certainly not in that mold. If you insist that non-fiction should not contain whole conversations (that were not recorded) from the 1980s or (speculation about?) what someone was thinking in the 1990s, this is not the book for you. If you think that all perspectives of a nonfiction narrative should be included, this isn’t the book for you. It holds on tight to the limited perspective of its central subject: the hacker “Alien.” I didn’t mind that.
Last year, I read a nonfiction book about drug cartels and horse racing. In my review of that book, I stated that it would have been “improved had it just gone all out and framed the narrative as a thriller or procedural, strictly sticking to the point-of-view of the main FBI agent.” Kudos for Breaking and Entering for doing something a little different. And in a way that I suggested!
Breaking and Entering is no great literary achievement – it is not like The Right Stuff or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or In Cold Blood. Do not expect beautiful language or really any kind of strong sense of style. There won’t be classes taught about this book 10 years from now. It’s just an account of one woman’s career, told in a fast pulpy-yet-not-sexy style.
Also, despite the title, the career of Alien is not an extraordinary story. She is a cybersecurity consultant, which is a little unusual as a career path, but there’s nothing CRAZY in this book about that life. You should look elsewhere if you want underground crime or portrayals of the lifestyles of the rich and notorious.
The banality of Alien’s story is actually what I found to be the most interesting thing about it. Breaking and Entering, inadvertently or not, tells the story of the career of a woman of my generation in a technological field. Her story felt very familiar — I have a lot of friends that partied too hard in college, worked for the government, worked as consultants, worked for large companies, started their own businesses. The author could have, but did not, go into psychological and/or deeper examinations about Alien’s drug use, relationships, and friendships. The author clung tightly to her career. Indeed, at the end of the book, the reader has only a limited idea about Alien’s personality.
By keeping a laser-like focus on the perspective of Alien and her career, the author described the career-path trajectories of many late-Generation Xers. The story of how this one woman Grew Up, in an environment and time that I’m familiar with but from a female perspective that I am not, ultimately proved fascinating to me.
I’m a moody reader. Maybe I just read this quick-to-read book at the right time in my life. Maybe I was tickled that a remedy I suggested for one mediocre non-fiction book was adopted for this story. Maybe I related too strongly to this book’s subject matter. Whatever the reasons —
My rating: 5 Stars.