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Category Archives: John Brunner

“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.

 

 

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Out of the Unknown, Series 1: episode 10, “Some Lapse of Time” by John Brunner.

Cast: Max Harrow – Ronald Lewis, Diana  Harrow – Jane Downs, Smiffershon – John Gabriel,  Gordon Faulkner – Richard Gale, Laura Danville – Delena Kidd, Professor Leach – Moultrie Kelsall,

Script:  Leon Griffiths

Director: Roger Jenkins

Designer: Ridley Scott.

Producer and Story Edtor: Irene Shubik, 

Associate Producer: George Spenton-Foster.

“Some Lapse of Time” was first broadcast on  8 December 1965.

It is based on a short story by  John Brunner, published in February 1963 in Fantasy magazine. Brunner began writing science  fiction in the late 1950s and went on to write such influential novels as Stand on Zanzibar (1968) about overpopulation,  The Sheep Look Up (1972) about pollution,   and The Shockwave Rider (1975) about the threat to liberty posed by computers.

Like many young people in the late 1950s  Brunner was a member of Campaign  for Nuclear Disarmament,   founded  in 1958 to campaign   against the H- Bombs posssessed by  Britain the USA and Soviet Union,  which many  feared would end civilisation if  they were ever used in a war. For a time CND attracted tens of  thousands on its “Ban the bomb” marches.  Brunner organised CND caravans into Europe,  and wrote several songs for the movement, including the CND Marching Song,  which was sung on the first London to  Aldermaston March in 1958. His non-SF novel The Days of March (1988) is set in the early  days of the movement.

Leon Griffiths wrote for the Communist party newsaper  the Daily Worker for a time before going on to write for television, most famously creating Minder.

The opening  shows us  Max Harrow having a nightmare in which what look like cavemen are gathered around a fire,  performing  a ritual,  chanting and  waving what seems to be a bone of some kind. Then he dreams that he is being hunted.  When Harrow  finally awakes we learn that this is a recurring nightmare; his wife Diana  urges him to see someone at the hospital where he works.

As they talk  a policeman  rings the doorbell asking Harrow to see  a tramp they have found collapsed near his car. When he is brought in Harrow   diagnoses that the tramp is suffering from “heterocardia”,  a disease caused by radiation  from which his son Jimmy  has  died. Tests at the hosptial convince his sceptical colleagues that his diagnosis was correct, even though sufferers invariably die when young.  The tramp is clutching  something which, when they persuade him to let it go,  they realise  is a fingerbone.

Harrow and Smiffershon

When Harrow meets his wife for lunch, she is reading a newspaper whose  main headline is about an accident  at an atomic weapens base. He tells her about the tramp. He’s a very sick man…nobody knows where he came from or how he managed to stay alive until now…the police think that he came round to my place  to ask for help, but why? Harrow becomes angry when his wife presses him to see somebody about his dreams.

When the tramp regains consciousness Harrow recognises him from his dream, while the tramp recognises him. They are able to glean that his  name is Smiffershon but cannot comprehend  anything else he says.  Smiffershon   bursts into laughter when he sees Harrow’s finger.

At home Harrow again rows with his wife about the tramp. If we know what he knows about heterocardia Jimmy wouldn’t have died. Doesn’t that matter?…  It’s hard to understand but this tramp means something more. It wasn’t just chance that brought him here,  carrying that fingerbone. It’s as  if  he’s if slipped out of one of my nightmares….I just know that tramp means something special to me. ..Where does he come from?.

Laura and Smiffershon

Harrow calls in a philologist Laura Denville, an attractive blonde,  in an effort to identify his language which sounds Scandanavian.  She  comes to an unsettling conclusion, namely,  that he is speaking a form of English. He’s speaking our language as if it’s undergone a series of extreme changes. It’s the sort of difference between the English of  Langlands’  day and our own…These changes take place over hundreds of years. 

His fixation with Smiffershon leads to Harrow having another  argument  with his wife,  who  is suspicious  of  Denville.  Diana accidentally  catches his fingers in the  car door,  resulting in the end  of  one of them having  to be amputated. The dream is starting to come true, the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place.

When Smiffershon is given a routine X-ray they discover that  he is  full of Strontium 90 and should be dead. He is immediately placed in isolation. Harorw calls in  archaeolgist who discovers that  the fingerbone  which they took from Smiffershon  is also full of radiation.

Both Jane and his friends are increasingly concerned for Harrow’s mental health. His colleagues try to assure  him that there is a rational explanation,  but he is now convinced that Smiffershon has come back through time after a nuclear war  to warn them of the dangers of what they are doing.

I know all about our friend the tramp now…I even recognise his face from my dreams…That old tramp hasn’t just been dusted with radioactive particles, it’s inside him, in his muscles, in his glands. He’s lived through something pretty terrible, a world we can hardly even imagine…Seven, eight, nine generations after the bombs..I am talking about an island  when the cities have gone, when fires, a hundred miles wide,  consume the fields and forest, when there’s nothing left. That’s when people stop using words like “blankets”, “shoes”, “pints  of beer”, “cigarette”. And, of course,  there’s still be people, people saturated with radioactivity like Smiffershon. 

Harrow is drugged  and is given therapy, but it does not help. Despairing, he tries to attack Smiffershon. When he is restrained he  suffers a  complete collapse and begins speaking in the same language as Smiffershon. He is taken to a psychiatric hospital with little hope of recovery. In the final minutes of the drama Laura  is able to converse with Smiffershon who confirms that everything that Harrow  suspected is true.

In my view this is the best  in the series  so far,   with real tension and disquiet created.  Ronald Lewis and John Gabriel,  in particular,  give superb  performances.

At the time of transmission the viewing public would have been familar with the idea of a nuclear war that would destroy humanity. This theme was explored in numerous novels,  television plays  and films. I have already written in an earlier post on The Chrysalids by John Wnyndham,

In addition there were the following:

Novels

The Spurious Sun, by George Borodin (1948) begins  with an H-bomb-like explosion in Scotland which ignites the upper atmosphere; savage wars ensue worldwide, the UK is eliminated by nuclear weapons, and both Leningrad and San Francisco are obliterated. 

Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley (1948) is a  satire on the potential for the destruction of humanity.

 On the Beach by Neville Shute (1957) is   set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear  war,  and follows the fate of  group of  people awaiting the arrival of  the fallout from the northern hemisphere. The government  issues suicide pills to the population. The novel was a worldwide bestseller and  was filmed in 1959 and again in 2000.

On the Last Day by Mervyn Jones (1958)  features  a Russian/Chinese invasion of Britain, during a non-nuclear Third World War , and of the successful attempt of the British government in exile (in Canada) to build a new intercontinental missile. Jones was  an activist  in CND.

 British television

Number Three, broadcast by the BBC on 1st  February 1953. This was dramatised from a novel by Charles Irving by Nigel Neale and  others.  Scientists at an atom research station  working on a new form of nuclear power discover  the project leader plans to  use it as a weapon.

Doomsday for Dyson  by J B Priestley, broadcast on ITV on 10th March 1958. An anti-war fantasy about a man standing trial in the afterlife for killing his family in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. It was followed by a short studio discussion on the issues raised.

Underground, broadcast  by ATV on 30th  November 1958 in the “Armchair Theatre” series.  It was written by James Forsyth, adapted from novel by Harold Rein Few Were Left, and directed by William Kotcheff.  The survivors of a nuclear holocaust are trapped in the London Underground.

The Offshore Island, broadcast by the BBC on 14th  April 1959. It was written by Michael Voysey, based on a play by  Marganita Laski, an activist in CND.  A  drama about a family whose farm remains unaffected, eight years after a nuclear war. Their peace is disturbed by a force of American soldiers and then a Russsian one.

The Poisoned Earth, broadcast by  ITV on 28th  February 1961 in the “Play of the Week” series. It was written by Arden Winch. Moral problems are raised when a new type of nuclear bomb, with limited fallout range, is developed.

The Road, broadcast by the BBC on 29 September 1963.  It was written by Nigel Kneale,  and was  part of  the “First Night” drama series.  A  scientist and a philosopher  in C18th investigate  “ghosts” that appear on Michaelmass Eve each year. In the end we realise  that they are actually visions from  the future of  people fleeing down a road from a nuclear war.  This drama   was wiped by the BBC,  but an excellent  radio radio dramatisation was broadcast in 2018, adapted by Toby Hadoke.

The War Game (1965) . Devised by Peter Watkins, this is a drama-documentary, depicting a nuclear attack  on Britain, and showing us the aftermath. The Labour government forced the BBC to cancel the screening which had been due to take place on 5 October 1965. Instead it was shown around the country by CND groups. It  was finally shown on television in July 1985.