The Shockwave Rider

The Shockwave Rider is a 1975 science fiction novel by John Brunner, notable for its hero’s use of computer hacking skills to escape pursuit in a dystopian future, and for the coining of the word ‘worm’ to describe a program that propagates itself through a computer network. It also introduces the concept of a ‘Delphi pool’ (a large group of people used as a statistical sampling resource), perhaps derived from the RAND Corporation’s Delphi method – a futures market on world events which bears close resemblance to DARPA’s controversial and cancelled Policy Analysis Market (dubbed the ‘Terrorism Market’ by the media).

The title derives from the futurist work ‘Future Shock’ by Alvin Toffler. The hero is a survivor in a hypothetical world of quickly changing identities, fashions, and lifestyles, where individuals are still controlled and oppressed by a powerful and secretive state apparatus. His highly developed computer skills enable him to use any public telephone to punch in a new identity, thus reinventing himself. As a fugitive, he must do this from time to time in order to escape capture. The title is also a metaphor for survival in an uncertain world.

The novel depicts a dystopian early 21st century America dominated by computer networks, and is considered by some critics to be an early ancestor of the ‘cyberpunk’ genre (which would be popularized by William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ in 1984). The hero, Nick Haflinger, is a runaway from Tarnover, a government program intended to find, educate and indoctrinate highly gifted children to further the interests of the state in a future where quantitative analysis backed by the tacit threat of coercion has replaced overt military and economic power as the deciding factor in international competition. In parallel with this, the government has become a de facto oligarchy whose beneficiaries are members of organized crime.

The background to the story includes a massive earthquake laying waste to the San Francisco Bay area in California. Millions die and millions more are left to live on government handouts. The subsequent economic depression, coupled with the rootlessness enabled by access to online data and strong social pressure to be flexible (the results of corporations wanting highly mobile workforces without strong local ties), results in a fragmentation of society along religious, ethnic and a variety of class markers, what Toffler calls ‘subcults,’ including what would be later described as ‘gangs.’ The equitable distribution of data access and data privacy is a prominent theme in the book; characters who have access to information which is nominally secret enjoy demonstrable economic advantages over others lacking access to such data. In the novel, data privacy is reserved for corporate entities and individuals who may then conceal wrongdoing; by contrast, normal citizens do not enjoy significant privacy.

The world described in the book is dystopian, with laissez-faire economics portrayed as leading inevitably to disaster as greed trumps long-term planning. The educational system is dysfunctional, with teachers unable to perform their jobs due to strictures. The only ‘functional’ educational system seen in the book is portrayed as an enclave, the tightly-controlled Tarnover school. Communities are either walled fortresses of privilege or largely lawless areas entirely lacking protection from corrupt civil authorities. Infrastructure has been allowed to crumble, and characters who reside within ‘paid avoidance zones’ receive compensation from the government in lieu of actual services.

 The novel was written shortly after two pivotal events of the 1970s, the resignation of Richard Nixon and the overthrow of the Chilean President Salvador Allende. Both are referenced in the novel as examples, in Nixon’s case, of a failed attempt by organized crime to suborn the Presidency, and in the second, of the consequences of working against multinational commercial interests. Most of the characters live with the feeling that their lives could be turned upside down in an instant because of someone breaking into the data held on the network. They also believe that the network knows more about them than they do about themselves. This is an extension of the sense of paranoia felt by many people in the 1970s, believing themselves to be powerless in the face of political and economic forces over which they had no control.

Perception is a recurrent theme in the novel. In particular, Brunner is concerned with perceptual patterns and how they can both help and mislead. Nick projects patterns of behavior to assume his personas, but Kate has ‘natural wisdom’ which means that she ignores surface patterns to perceive the truth beneath. The theme of patterns in perception runs through the entire novel. ‘Future shock’ arises when reality and change disrupt patterns. People respond by falling into strong patterns within human nature, particularly tribalism. Others try to convince themselves that all change is good, adopting the ‘plug in’ lifestyle where they feel able to relocate to another city and insert themselves into a new social niche with a minimum of inconvenience. Their mobility is, however, a reflection of the failure of the lifestyle to satisfy them, resulting in more moves. In this world of confusion, there are also companies specializing in psychological intervention. One such is ‘Anti-Trauma Inc.’ who are hired to ‘normalize’ children, although what they do is more akin to ‘deprogramming,’ as performed on children retrieved from cults. They do significant harm to their charges, although as so often happens in Brunner’s interconnected society, they also spend much money and time covering up their failures.

Brunner’s concept of the ‘computer worm’ was inspired by analogy with the tapeworm, a digestive parasite. A biological tapeworm consists of a head attached to a long train of reproductive segments, each of which can produce more worms when detached. Brunner’s ‘data-net tapeworm’ consists of a head followed by other segments, each being some kind of code which has effects on databases and other systems. Several are unleashed in the book.


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