The Shockwave Rider is one of a series of influential and wildly imaginative novels that Brunner wrote in the 1960s and 1970s in which he imgined how society might develop in the future under the impact of problems such as over-population and environmental pollution.
In The Shockwave Rider, Brunner’s focus is the impact of computers on society, a technology whose use in the early 1970s was confined to large corporations, scientific research institutes and the government. Computers were large machines which filled whole rooms: the idea of home computers was just a distant dream. (You can find a timeline on the development of computers here).
In his introduction to the novel John Brunner writes:
People like me who are concerned to portray in fictional terms aspects of that foreign country, the future, whither we are all willy-nilly being deported, do not make our guesses in a vacuum. We are frequently – and in this case I am specifically – indebted to those who are analyzing the limitless possibilities of tomorrow with some more practical aim in view…as for instance the slim yet admirable hope that our children may inherit a world more influenced by imagination and foresight than our own. The scenario (to employ a fashionable cliche) of The Shockwave Rider derives in large part from Alvin Toffler’s stimulating study Future Shock, and in consequence I’m much obliged to him.
Future Shock, published in 1970, was written by Alvin and Heidi Toffler. The Tofflers argued that society was undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society” a change which was overwhelming people and leaving them suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” ie “future shock” In their view the majority of social problems were symptoms of “future shock”.and “information overload.”
The Tofflers explicitly referenced science fiction: “… science fiction has immense value as a mind-stretching force for the creation of the habit of anticipation. Our children should be studying Arthur C. Clarke, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, not because these writers can tell them about rocket ships and time machines but, more important, because they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults.”
Brunner specificlaly references the book in the novel :“oh, well the fact it it took us by surprise is just another example of Toffler’s Law, I guess: the future arrives too early and in the wrong order.”
So to the story. Nicholas Haflinger is a “dodger.” In this future society computers log all citizens and their activity, but Haflinger can create his own identity on the data-net (as Brunner calls it) by inputting fictitious details from his veephone – and then disappear from the gaze of the authorities. Periodically Haflinger purges his existing identity and creates a new one.
In this future those with money have adopted the “plug-in” lifestyle” which offers never-ending change as one vacuous trend replaces another, one job replaces another, one house replaces another, one partner replaces another… ad infinitum. Television offers multiple three-vee channels which are periodically hijacked by pirate channels broadcasting from satellites. There are also competing religious groups: eg the Billykings (Protestants), the Grailers (Catholic), the Jihadi babies (Muslims), who attack each other in gang wars (known as “triballing).
The computer networks offer public Delphi boards on which the public bets on the outcome of predictions.
It works approximately like this.
First you corner a large – if possible, a very large – number of people who, while they’ve never formally studied the subject you’re going to ask them about and hence are unlikley to recall the correct answer, are nonetheless plugged into the culture to which a question relates.
Then you ask them, as it might be, to estimate how many people died in the great influenza epidemic, which followed World War 1, or how many loaves were condemned by EEC food inspectors as unfit for human consumption during June 1970.
Curiously, when you consolidate their replies they tend to cluster around the actual figure as recorded in almanacs, year-books and statistical returns,
It’s rather as though this paradox has proved true: that while nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody knows what’s going on around here.
Well, it works for the past, why can’t it work for the future? Three hundred million people with access to the integrated North American data-net is a nice big number of potential consultees. Unfortunately most of them are running scared from the awful specter of tomorrow. How best to corner people who just do not watn to know?
An orphan, Haflinger was was recruited from school by the government and taken to a training and educational facility called Tarnover. It’s dedicated to:
…exploiting genius. Their ancestry could be traced back to the primitive “think tanks” of the mid-twentieth century, but only in the sense that a solid-state computer was descended from Hollerith’s punched-card analyzer. Every superpower, and a great many second-hand and third-rank nation has similar centres. The brain race had been running for decades and some countries had entered it with head start. (The pun was popular, and forgivable.)
The USA entered the race on the grand scale very late. Not until the nation was reeling under the impact of the Great Bay Quake was the harsh lesson learned that the economy could not absorb disasters of even this magnitude. Even then it took years for the switch from brawn to brain to become definitive in North America. ..the goal? To pin down before anybody else did the genetic elements of wisdom.
Haflinger flourishes at Tarnover – but then he discovers that they are trying to make a superhuman through genetic experiments, creating life that is brought to term in an artificial womb. Appalled, he goes on the run
At the start of the novel, after deleting his identity as Arthur Lazarus, founder and proprietor of the Church of Infinite Insight in a converted drive-in movie theatre near Toledo, Haflinger creates a new identity as Sandy Locke, a computer-sabotage consultant, and gets a job with a corporation called G2S. All well and good and as planned. But then he meets a woman called Kate Lilleberg who sees right through his role-playing. “You Sandy Locke are trying far too hard to adhere to a statistical norm. and I hate to see a good man go to waste.”
Californian commune, 1970
The strain of living too many lives and having to constantly maintain a facade brings about Haflinger’s mental collapse from which he is rescued by Kate. They become lovers and go on the run, eventually ending up at at Precipice, one of the settlements created by refugees from Northern Califiornia after the Great Bay Quake which levelled San Francisco. The town is reached by a meandering electric rail-car. “Among the things Precipicians didn’t like might be cited the data-net, veephones, surface vehicles not running on tracks, heavier-than air craft…modern merchandising methods and the Federal government.”
Precipice rejects “the plug-in society”; the inhabitants lives life in environmental way with a strong sense of place and community, guided by a grassroots democracy. But it hides some vital secrets that protect its independence from a Federal governmnet that loathes it and from the tribes who try and raid the town from time to time. This description of a human-based society seems very inspired by the communes that sprang up in California in the 1970s.
After a falling out Kate and Haflinger spilt up and leave Precipice. Haflinger is identified and captured, returned to Tarnover and questioned relentlessly about his life on the run.
His interogator Freeman tells him: “…But you see you are nobody. And you chose to be so of your own free will. Legally, officially, you simply don’t exist.” Kate too is abducted and interogated to put pressure on him. But, convinced by Haflinger’s relentless logic, his interrogator Freeman releases them unofficially. The couple then criss-cross the United States, borrowing home computers as Haflinger creates and releases a worm that cannot be killed into the data-net, as he tells a press conference held in building occupied by students;
…consist in a comprehensive and irrevocable order to release at any printout station any and all data in store whose publication may conduce to the enhanced well-being, whether physical, psychological or social of the population of North America. Specifically…information concerning gross infringements of Canadian, Mexican and.or United Staets legal enactmnets respecting – in order of priority- public health, the protection of the environment, bribery and corruption, fair business and the payment of national taxes, shall be dissemminated automatically to the media.
In other words there are no longer any secrets.
They return to Precipice where they and the town face a final apocalyptic threat from the Federal Government that only Halflinger’s extraordinary talent for altering the data-net can save them from. Can he achieve the impossible?
The Shockwave Rider is at heart a novel of ideas and possibilities : the core of the novel is Freeman’s and Haflinger’s dialogue on the kind of society they are living in – and what an alternative might be. Highly recommended.