The Net Before the Net: John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider

John Brunner wrote four major novels, each of them set fifty years ahead of the date when he was writing. In each of them he extrapolated different social and scientific trends and problems he could see in the world of the time in which he was writing and projected theml forward. In Stand on Zanzibar (1968) it’s overpopulation, in The Jagged Orbit (1969) it’s race relations and violence, in The Sheep Look Up (1972) it’s pollution, and in The Shockwave Rider (1975) it’s society speeding past the point where people can keep up—the title is a direct reference to Toffler’s Future Shock.

What people remember about The Shockwave Rider is that it predicts ubiquitous computing—in 1975—and some of the problems that come with it. It’s pre-cyberpunk, and it’s cyber without the punk. Reading it now, it’s impressive what it got right and what it got wrong.

The first three of Brunner’s “four futures” stories use the Dos Passos mode of juxtaposing “news” and ads and events and story and character to give kaleidoscopic views on the complex futures they portray. In comparison, The Shockwave Rider is very ordinary—it’s focused on one character, and that character, whose name is problematic, is having his mind peeled in a hostile interrogation. We see him in real time through the eyes of the interrogators, and in his past in very close-up third person. He’s a man on the run, and our sympathies are engaged from the start, even though we know where he will end up… though of course this is the beginning of the book, not the end.

This is a world where every phone is connected to the computer network, and where everyone has one code that is their identity, credit and everything else. People are afraid of their codes being DVed—devalued—and we see an angry man attempt to do this to the protagonist. At the time this was written we barely had phones with keys instead of rotary dials, and Brunner has his hero typing codes into phones to change his identity to get away from the attack. The internet was a dream of technologically-minded military types, and most computers didn’t even have monitors—most of the ones in the book don’t. But they’re networked, and you can get information off them. There are “worms” that are like viruses only more so, before there were real viruses. Reading the tech now is deeply weird.

Brunner extrapolated forward the drug culture of the seventies—not the pot and acid culture, the “mother’s little helper” culture, where everyone is taking tranquilizers and uppers to deal with their work. He took the trend of interchangeable suburbs and extended it out to make everywhere interchangeable because people move about so much and don’t have roots, the “plug in lifestyle.” “Bounce or break,” and a lot of them do overload and break.

You can bet on “Delphi boards” that predict coming social trends, and everyone does, even though the government are fixing the odds.

Teenagers join “tribes” that commit real mayhem, burning down territories. There are parts of cities that are no-go areas. There are game shows on TV where people are maimed and killed, and there are live circuses broadcast that have gladiatorial games and real deaths.

The thing that seems most painful is that the US has an overloaded health service, a bit like the Canadian health services or the NHS. It’s a dystopian world but, people do at least have healthcare and a social safety net.

The Shockwave Rider is a book I admire more than I like. It’s definitely important to the history of the genre and was hugely influential. I remain impressed with the worldbuilding and the smoothness of the execution. But ultimately it fails for me because it’s no fun. I find the protagonist with his shifting identities hard to like and hard to identify with. I do not like the magical girl he finds, Kate, who has the elusive and desirable “wisdom” he wants. (She doesn’t do anything to have it, or demonstrate it, she just has it.) He hits her and she forgives him. I think he’s a jerk, and while my sympathies are engaged because he’s captured and helpless, I still think he’s a jerk, and yet the text seems to admire him and want me to care about him. I also find the end too slick.

But it’s full of details—like the game of “fencing,” like an electronic form of Go. Or there are the identities he has taken: “lifestyle consultant, utopia designer, priest, data retrieval specialist”—that last is like being a systems analyst, but they didn’t have the name when the book was written. They barely had computers. But it has social networks, sort of. It has future slang that works. Every time I read it different bits of it have become relevant. (It’s wrong about “veephones” though. There’s a piece of tech we actually have and that nobody wants.)

I keep re-reading it, not to compare it against current tech, but because I always feel that I may be old enough to like it this time. I like most Brunner, and Stand on Zanzibar is a masterpiece. But although I continue to admire it and insist that it is a significant book, this wasn’t that time either. Oh well.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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