Friday, October 7, 2011

The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Back to my usual genre of choice this time with The Shockwave Rider, a reasonably enjoyable and somewhat eerily prescient view of life in the Internet age, given that it was written in 1975.  I haven’t read a lot of John Brunner’s work, although he was extremely prolific and won numerous awards his work is somewhat erratic as to whether it’s in print or not.  He’s perhaps known best for his Hugo-winning novel Stand on Zanzibar, and for his themes of environmental degradation, personal isolation, and dystopian politics.

The Shockwave Rider was apparently the source of the phrase “worm”, in the sense of a self-replicating computer program.  This may be the earliest novel that I’ve ever seen which goes deeply into the implications of a global Internet type computer network, although this being the 1970s it’s run mostly on wires through the phone network and computers are big monstrous things.  A lot of the elements are there though, since there’s a lot of databanks that have dirt on everyone and there’s advantage to be had in knowing something that other people don’t.

The title is a reference to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, which was sort of an in vogue reference for SF authors in the 1970s (it was also a big influence in Joe Haldeman’s Forever War.)  This is where the wide-eyed idealism of the 1950s started to get caught up in all the big cultural shifts of the 60s and 70s.  Toffler’s book dealt with the idea that change was beginning to move so rapidly that individuals wouldn’t be able to keep up with it and would become increasingly disaffected and deranged.  In Brunner’s novel this has indeed come to pass; people cling desperately to their tribal affiliations, since they’re the only thing that can be relied upon in a wonky world.  Those lucky enough to have jobs may be “plug-in people”, who are expected to relocate across the country and change jobs and companies two or three times a year to perform the exact same sort of white-collar labor no matter where they go.  The government’s decided that it’s too much trouble to clean up after major disasters and now pays people a small stipend to forgo modern conveniences like electricity and health care, although for the most part it’s captive to business interests.  And everything you do and say is likely to be bugged, recorded, analyzed and stored on behalf of entities that you don’t necessarily have contact with and might not approve of if you did.  And the government uses extreme measures to crack down on particular fugitives, including detention without charges and harsh interrogation methods.

Is it any wonder that everyone’s using a lot of tranquilizers?  For that matter does any of that sound familiar?  Our protagonist here is Nick Haflinger, who would be described as a hacker if that term was in common usage, who was trained by Tarnover, a combination think tank/boarding school/research laboratory/minimum security prison sort of place.  The goal of Tarnover is to produce individuals who are capable of adjusting to more or less any social situation without shutting down or flipping out (surfing the future shock, see?)  The eventual goal is to create, essentially, weaponized knowledge.  Nick eventually had some philosophical disputes with Tarnover, which he prudently kept to himself, managed to steal the equivalent of an administrative password to the computer network, and escaped.  Considering that he starts the novel immobilized in an interrogation chamber it doesn’t necessarily work out that well for him.

The first part of the novel focuses on his interactions with his interrogators.  They’ve got the power to directly manipulate his brain so he can’t lie to them, they just take the data they want about how he managed to evade capture while taking on all sorts of different identities.  But at the same time he’s able to engage in philosophical conversation with at least one of his captors, which allows him to bring that guy around to his point of view and escape once more, but this time being more hotly pursued and with his enemies more aware of his methods.  But he’s better than the pursuers so he manages to bring down the Man, thwart a retaliatory nuclear strike on him, and ride off into the free information future with his girl.

Brunner’s writing style here is unique.  There are a lot of flashbacks where you’re just thrown right into the action and you have to figure out who various people are (especially Nick).  It rewards you for keeping up, but it’s pretty clear that he meant the style to be disorienting in the same way that his subject matter (or the modern world, for that matter) is.  So it’s a nice mixture of the theme being illustrated right there in the text, which isn’t something that happens all the time.  And there are a couple of stretches of brilliance in there too.  Unfortunately there are also a large number of ponderous info dump sorts of conversations, and I don’t think I’ll be quoting passages out of this in the future.

The philosophy is also fairly interesting but doesn’t quite push the rock over the hill to become profound.  I find myself in agreement with most of the points made in this novel but I don’t think I could have been convinced by the novel if I didn’t already hold most of those beliefs.  One of the more interesting concepts introduced here is basically a prediction market, where everyone’s opinions are averaged out and used to set policy.  Nick eventually takes down the system by eliminating secrecy, so that everyone is able to find out what everyone else knows.  This has the effect of tearing down the corrupt system and creating a quasi-socialist meritocracy with no bloodshed.  This idea about eliminating all secrecy isn’t exactly unheard of in SF circles or writings, such as David Brin’s Transparent Society, but I’m a little disappointed in how well it all works out given the care that Brunner has taken to create a fractured dystopia.  Are the various violent street gangs really going to cooperate and allocate resources to each other based on need now?  But at the same time I can agree with the idea that we’re still stuck with tribal hunter-gatherer brains, which is probably the larger point.

For that matter I’m a little disappointed that he can suggest that such a complicated problem can have such an easy solution, and for that matter that there is really someone (the corrupt government and corporations) to blame.  As I get older I increasingly discover that there’s plenty of responsibility to go around for the evils of the world but not necessarily a lot of out and out guilt.  But in fiction it’s pretty common to be able to defeat one bad guy or system and fix all the problems.  I guess that’s because it’s a lot more fun to read about that way.  And the philosophical discussions are a little bit ponderous, they would probably sound pretty portentous if you were really hammered, but that’s really the sort of thing I associate with a lot of SF from the 70s – a lot of deep ideas, man, really deep.  And then you take a step back and ask, wait, what was that all about again?  The light that the day makes and the day that the light makes?  Oh well.

But I don’t really want to take that much away from this novel, since it’s actually pretty interesting and if he did get a lot of predictions wrong, he basically anticipated the Internet in 1975.  I don’t think I can really work my head around how strange this must have been to read at the time.  For a modern reader it’s perfectly natural that the first thing you do after getting off a plane is to head for a public terminal to check the news, the stock market and to check if you have any messages.  From the perspective of someone who’s constantly carrying around at least one device that will do all that stuff this seems elementary, but at the time there’s no way.  He even anticipated the Internet ecosystem arising around the networks, with various programs and counter-programs going about their purposes without interference from humans who in many cases aren’t aware of them.  But of course Brunner had a lot of tech readers so this may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent.

Anyway, this is a pretty interesting classic SF piece that got a bunch of things surprisingly right and others not so much, and it’s reasonably accessible as these things go.  It’s definitely interesting as an influence on some later works, but it does have some of the drawbacks of its era as well.  If any of the above sounds interesting then check it out, if you can find it.  It appears to have been reprinted recently, though.

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