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Monthly Archives: June 2019

“the plug-in society…”: The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner (1975)

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.

The data-net

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.