John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider has a fantastic ending: an unstoppable computer virus reveals all secret information. If you’ve bribed the food inspectors to ignore mad cow disease in your factory farm, now the whole world knows about it. Gone to war under false pretences? Selling designer clothes made in hidden sweatshops? Passing along government money to friends? The truth is spilling out to whoever asks for it.
Actually, I think about Brunner’s reveal-all virus quite often, because I damn well want one!
We live in a consumer-oriented society that does everything it can to hide the nature of those consumed goods from us. If there’s a cheap item on the shelf, is it cheap because the company that made it was efficient or is it cheap because the company screwed everyone along the way? When I recycle something, what happens to it… does it end up somewhere in a ditch in China? Is my bank a good place to put my money? And so on.
I have no easy way of finding out the answers to these questions, but what if there was a way? Clearly, Brunner is playing a bit of a wish-fulfillment fantasy for those concerned about things like the environment or good governance – in the thirty years since Brunner first predicted the computer virus in this book, virus coders have not helped out society in this way.
Still, it reinforces a notion that I’ve picked up from science fiction: in a future where all your personal information is online, and corporations and governments are trying to control “information” and “online,” you’d better know some hackers or you’re screwed. Step out of line or deviate from the norm, and you’ll have the entire apparatus of control on your case.
Brunner addresses this directly in The Shockwave Rider. The main character, Nickie Halflinger, is on the lam, and the system is looking for him. He survives as long as he does because he has a powerful code that can rewrite all his identity files. He goes along aimlessly, but after awhile he realizes that no one is going to do anything about the problems in society… it’s up to him. Not only does he have to evade all the mechanisms of a overly-regimented social order, he’s trying to figure out how to overturn it. It’s a neat setup.
Brunner talks alot about the gnawing realization that there’s personal data out there that affects us and we have no way of knowing what it is. I don’t think people in our society have reached that level of anxiety yet. For me I’m more worried about the beef stew, so that’s why I remember that part of the book. What do I mean? From the fabulous section at the end of The Shockwave Rider where Nickie’s virus reveals quite a few secrets:
An Alarming Item to Find on a Pack of “Honest-to-Goodness” Beef Stew
Despite being advertised as domestic, this stew contains 15 to 35 percent imported meat originating in areas where typhus, brucellosis and trichinosomiasis are endemic. Authority to label the contents as domestic produce was obtained following the expenditure of approx. $215,000 in bribes to customs and public-health inspectors. This is a cybernetic datum derived from records not intended for publication. (245)
This is such a great idea, but there are actually other things to the plot! When I re-read the book, I found out that it actually has a lot to say about the psychological costs of a fast-paced lifestyle – Brunner calls it the plug-in lifestyle. Not only do people lose any sense of stability, society naturally falls into extra surveillance all for the sake of convenience.
I should say that The Shockwave Rider is a talkative book, and it can get a bit preachy. Nickie often argues with people in authority, and the reader always knows that Brunner sees Nickie as 100% right. But there is also a ton of memorable material, plot-wise as well as in Brunner’s fun wordplay. The book is a quick read too, if I’m making it sound too heavy.
Brunner wrote a crazy amount of novels, about 80 or 90 books, all the way back to 1951 and up until his death in 1995. I haven’t read much of his pulpy output, although I have a fondness for The Long Result (1965) which is a book about a mysterious alien who is very hard to kill. Most of his books simply aren’t available any more.
But The Shockwave Rider (1975) is still in print, along with two other important novels that he wrote in the same time period, Stand on Zanzibar (1968), about overpopulation, and The Sheep Look Up (1972), about environmental degradation and probably his most famous book (it has a scene with a defective microwave and a pregnant woman that tends to stick in the memory).
People still read his books, but his warnings seemed to go unheeded, and Brunner got quite disillusioned with humanity. One of his last books, A Maze of Stars (1993), was about a kilometers-long sentient starship that goes around the galaxy seeding civilizations. On its subsequent return visits, it discovers that these societies all destroyed themselves. It was one last warning and I’m still hoping that we can prove Brunner wrong.