Apr 4 2013 4:00pm

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

The Shockwave Rider John BrunnerJohn 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.

Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
Jo:I'm almost exactly a year older than you and I've always liked this book--maybe you need to wait 1 more year :-)

Nick Haflinger is on the run from everyone--himself included. When we meet him "he" is a jerk but he isn't really himself in a literal fashion. When he hits Kate I think it is that act that shocks him out of the shock of being a many layered deceit and back into being Nick Haflinger. Nick knows that it is a wrong thing to do.
The sound of the gene-modified dogs defending the town always gives me a chill. I also recall being vastly bemused when Robert Morris created his worm back in 1988.
By the way, a worm is generally a standalone piece of code while a virus usually operates by being run from or at least launched by another piece of software. YMMV here.
Jon Evans
2. rezendi
Huh. You know, when summarized it almost sounds like a Philip K. Dick novel (though it really didn't feel like one, at least to me.)
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Rezendi: It isn't like one, but you're right anyway. Interesting.
Nicholas Winter
4. Nicholas Winter
I'm hoping that Tor will release a new edition in the US as it's long out of print here and is not even availible as an ebook outside of the UK publishing territories.

It's an oddly sparse novel when compared to Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up which makes for a quicker read.
Jonah Feldman
5. relogical
"Every time I read it different bits of it have become relevant."

No joke, considering that the book features computer viruses, identity theft, ChatRoulette, maker culture, Anonymous, and Wikileaks.

And Stand on Zanzibar had Twitter-like status updates.

Are we sure that Brunner didn't have a Delphi board of his own?
Ruthanna Emrys
6. R.Emrys
I haven't read this book, and it sounds like the protagonist would be a deal-killer for me, but if a veephone is a videophone then I use mine all the time. Or rather, part of the time--if I know I'll be trying to have a long conversation, or role-playing long distance, or if the goal is to have someone see their kid or grandkid. It's the optionality that makes it usable when you really want it--there's no expectation that random callers should see you in your bathrobe. And, for that matter, there's no expectation that everyone must use one, which is the thing that really differs from most SFnal portrayals.
Nicholas Winter
7. WormMention
Incidentally, "The Shockwave Rider" featured one of the first appearances of a network traversing computer worm and may have inspired Robert Morris, a Cornell grad student, who unleashed the first media publicized computers worms through ARPANET in 1988.
Nicholas Winter
8. Pie'Oh'Pah
Well, he should. It seems he's made a conscious effort to follow in the footsteps of Olaf Stapledon, at least in the first part of the Last and First Men. It's worth re-reading, even if for the first time. JG Ballard was another British author in the same lineage of writers writing fiction purportedly about future events that are in reality extrapolations of current trends. (Though I'm waiting for the Chinese to (informally) adopt both Mervyn Peake and JG Ballard as Chinese as the Manchu or so ... :)
Michael Walsh
9. MichaelWalsh
"In 1975 when he learned that an editor had combined two characters with the same last name into a single character in The Shockwave Rider, thereby making the plot illegible, he wrote to reviewers and asked them not to take notice of the novel." - p. 121, John Brunner by Jad Smith (University of Illinois Press, 2012, isbn: 978-0-252-07881-1).

This refers to the 1975 Harper & Row edition, as far as I know the subsequent editions (Ballantine/Del Rey) have the correct text.
Yaron Glazer
10. statisticity
Tried reading Stand on Zanzibar. Some interesting ideas, but the writing didn't do much for me. Is that Brunner's best in your opinion?
Nicholas Winter
11. RandolphF
I think it's a lesser book than the other three. It's also the only one with an unambigously positive outcome. The world is saved, and on the edge of utopia at the end.

Less obviously, some of what I think of as whifty Britishness comes through. There's a fair bit of 1960s sexism in all four of these books. There's a lot of nostalgia for pastoralism in all of them—in Shockwave Rider that an actual pastoralist utopia is presented. Vedi British, though it is set in California. There's also a thread of mysticism and moralism in all of them. All of these have a prophetic figure, but in this one the prophet is the protagonist. I'm not sure if it's the first novel in which the "hacker as redeemer" trope makes its appearance, but it's one of the earliest.

Michael Walsh
12. MichaelWalsh
Hey statisticity:

FWIW, Brunner considered his 1967 novel Quicksand one of his favorites.
Nicholas Winter
13. AG
A long-standing favorite, as are the others in the quartet, problematic though they may be.

A quibble, though: "systems analyst" certainly did exist as a profession when Brunner wrote "The Shockwave Rider." At least that's what Robert McNamara thought he was doing when he started serving as US Secretary of Defense in 1961.
Nicholas Winter
14. Benford's Comment
"There are “worms” that are like viruses only more so, before there were real viruses."
Not so. I invented the first virus and the term, in 1969, at Livermore Lab on DARPAnet. I called it VIRUS and it simply showed up as a tag on all future emails sent from an infected machine. I sent it to show the DARPA people that viruses were easy to do and a future hazard. They ignored me. So I wrote a story depicting the future of viruses and published it in 1970.
This fact wiki has yet to fathom, though it's well documented: see the story and history at
I told John Brunner this in 1969 while in London; that's the origin of his "worm" and his knowledge of the net; he had never heard of DARPA and thought it unsettling that such a promising idea came from the Dept. of Defense.
I miss John's forward-looking vision in sf a lot!
Gregory Benford
Steven Halter
15. stevenhalter
Benford@14:Thanks, very interesting piece of historical knowledge.
David Dyer-Bennet
16. dd-b
Long-time favorite of mine, and thanks to Greg Benford for causing this post to come to my attention :-).

I just re-read Stand on Zanzibar, and confirmed my old memory that I didn't like it much. The slang, which is so heavily used, fell completely flat when it was new (for me) and is worse now; so it's a complete deal-breaker for me.

I like The Shockwave Rider much more, and have re-read it many times over the decades. Probably precisely because it's not drearily depressing to the end.

"Systems Analyst" was a title in use in the era the book was published (I got my first programming job in 1969, so I worked through that period).

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