John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider: A sci-fi classic from the past, whose future we live in

Gautham Shenoy August 18, 2018

“If you’d told me twenty-five years ago that the SF that would get it most right, up to a point, was not Heinlein or Asimov but J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick, I would not have laughed at you, just looked puzzled, just as I would if you had told me that the root form of millennial reality and millennial SF would be John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider.” – Neil Gaiman in his introduction to 2001’s tenth-anniversary edition of Pat Cadigan’s cyberpunk masterpiece Synners.

Over the course of a writing career spanning a little over forty years, John Brunner wrote almost sixty novels. Of these, four books considered to be his best, stand out for their prescience. Each one is set roughly about fifty years into the future at the time of their writing. Each one deals with a specific problem that he thought the world would face: The Hugo Award-winning 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar (that dealt with an overpopulated world), 1969’s The Jagged Orbit (interracial tensions), 1972’s The Sheep Look Up (ecological disaster), and last but not the least 1975’s The Shockwave Rider about identity, freedom and the power of controlling information in a world grappling with rapid change and ‘information overload’.

Today, The Shockwave Rider is hardly discussed and chiefly remembered for two things. Firstly for Brunner’s coinage of the term ‘worm’ to describe a program that propagates itself through a network, and for describing a computer virus before there were viruses. Secondly, for being one of the precursors of the cyberpunk genre. As per the author Bruce Bethke, who coined the term ‘cyberpunk’, Brunner’s Shockwave Rider, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and even Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination all were important antecedents of the thing that became known as cyberpunk fiction.

The Shockwave Rider deserves more. For it is amongst the few science fiction books of yore that you could lay your hands on, read and feel like it was written about what you, we, are going through on an everyday basis. Prescient? Yes. Definitely one of the more disturbing tomorrows (our today) as imagined in the past, with its depiction of a world immersed in e-communication, topped up with surveillance, where control of information and data is tantamount – and essential – to controlling people and societies.

Left: The 1975 Del Rey edition of The Shockwave Rider. Right: John Brunner c.1967.

The Shockwave Rider is Nickie Haflinger, who rides the shockwaves of the 21st century brought about by “too much change in too short a period of time”. If that phrase sounds familiar, it’s from Future Shock, the 1970 book by futurist Alvin Toffler which Brunner was influenced by and drew upon when writing this book.

Haflinger is a man on the run from a government organisation known as the Tarnover whose job it is to find gifted young children and educate, optimise them to be used as government tools to further the interests of the state. After finding out the truth about the world, the use it has for him, and especially after being horrified by the genetic experiments being conducted there, Haflinger escapes and goes on an identity-changing spree to avoid detection and capture. He becomes, in turn, a priest, utopia designer, a lifestyle consultant, data retrieval specialist (remember this was written in a time when there was no data retrieval). And he does this by ‘hacking’ into the data-net – Brunner’s term for what we know as the internet today – erasing one identity before creating another, by just using his computer skills to access government databases through telephone keypads, in a very impressive display on Brunner’s part of imagining (in 1975) a future where one person could manipulate networked computers for personal gain.

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In the carefully built world of The Shockwave Rider, the aforementioned data-net is where the real power – both political and economic – flows, with corporations and wealthy individuals having access to more data than the common man, and which gives them an edge, and needless to say the power to control entire societies. Because this is a world in which everyone has a unique code. A code that doesn’t just contain their credit and monetary details, but one that is their history, their Unique Identity – connected to everything they do and without which living would be impossible. Speaking of living, it is common and a given among the populace in The Shockwave Rider to take pills and drugs to numb the stresses of having to deal with too much technological change too fast and cope with societal change that is just as accelerated. And most of these people are what we would today call ‘digital nomads’, people going where their life takes them, where the jobs are, given that a few years before the events depicted in the book  a massive earthquake has devastated California, leaving not just death in its aftermath but as time goes by, by ruthless corporations that demand mobile and flexible workforces, a society splintered into various factions, nay tribes, at odds with each other, and where people are nothing more than encoded bits of information.

The shockwave-riding fugitive Nickie Haflinger is ultimately caught and brought in for interrogation. In fact, this happens early on in the book, which follows a non-linear structure with chapters dealing with details of his interrogation interspersed with details of his life on the run, overlaid with background information delivered through news snippets and other sources drawn from the world. This does make the book a challenging read because it doesn’t stop to explain what is going on, never standing still, much like the people that it portrays within itself. The chapters aren’t just unnumbered, they spring upon you without notice, with some being pages long and some just a few sentences in length with the subject always shifting. But their content always gives pause. Not just for Brunner’s take on our present but also for the many interesting ideas that populate its pages – from ecofast sustainable housing, plug-in lifestyles and Delphi pools (that use the wisdom of crowds to form policy) to reality TV where people may even be killed for entertainment and of course depiction of a connected world, including devices that Brunner called ‘veephones’ and their usage (and which we know today as vid-calls and video conferencing ). Another very fascinating element that plays not a small role in the book is a mysterious service called the Hearing Aid, which provides a simple listening service – untraceable thanks to its computer ‘tapeworms’ – that people can call and talk about whatever they wish, which is usually their problems and transgressions. Hearing Aid doesn’t offer help, neither does the person at the other end speak to the caller, because sometimes giving people the chance to talk themselves out is therapeutic enough?

During my recent reread of The Shockwave Rider, many years after my first read, I was struck by how much it is a commentary on today’s times in terms of its broad themes & contours, and its focus on the problems of individuals in a world where change is accelerated by technology. It doesn’t provide any answers, easy or otherwise, and neither does it conclude with a definitive ending, happy or otherwise.

How it ends is thus. It ends with a world on the brink of change – thanks to Haflinger’s worm that makes all information accessible to everybody from anywhere in the network.

But everything will still run by, and on, the network which is poised to morph not just into a de facto government that will decide the worth of people based on what they do and what they contribute to society. The network will also serve as the primary financial system that will decide which way the money will flow, based on the needs of the people it’s supposed to serve. Whether this change (if at all), in systems and, ways of living will come to pass, depends on the result of a plebiscite where the people have to choose from two propositions:

1: That this is a rich planet. Therefore poverty and hunger are unworthy of it, and since we can abolish them, we must.
2: That we are a civilized species. Therefore none shall henceforth gain an illicit advantage by reason of the fact we together know more than one of us can know.

Well–how did you vote?

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