John Brunner's book is frequently mentioned as one of the forerunners of the cyberpunk subgenre of sf. Heavily influenced by Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, it is less preachy than most futurology/media theory-influenced books, and much less so than most utopian novels. I enjoyed it far more than I expected to, and recommend it to cyberpunk fans--just add a few decades to all of the dates that were still the future when the book was written in 1975. (Why did 2000 seem like so much more than 25 years away then? Oh well.) At any rate, recommended...full of sly humor and some thought-provoking ideas. It also does well when read alongside The Transparent Society, by David Brin.

The foresight in this books is truly amazing. Brunner forsees a global computer network and even goes so far as to call it the web. He predicts common home terminals and the internet worm. In fact the term worm for a program that replicates it's self over a network (see virus) was taken from the context of this book.

The Shockwave Rider may have been the first novel to have as its hero a hacker. Nick Haflinger is a gifted individual on the run from the governments' you'll-leave-when-we-decide-you-can program for the gifted and talented. He possesses the talent to hack into private and public data systems and create new identities (including bank accounts, credit history, employment history and all other relevant data) at will. He has evaded capture for six years using not only his unique talent for creating new identities, but by his equally unique ability to adjust to new identities and lifestyles at a blinding pace (at least two or three complete transformations per year).

After 30 years, the novel is still an exciting blitz of action, culture and especially ideas in which John Brunner attempts to simulate the faster pace of life in the early 21st century by writing a novel that was almost insanely fast paced itself. He does this not so much by the now-familiar (in 2002) rush of action, but by a rush of ideas. Inspired by Alvin Tollfler's Future Shock, the novel is set in a cyberpunk future where global information systems are the most tame elements. It's a world with Delphi Pools, where the masses cast their bets and vote on future statistics; Hearing Aid, where anyone can dial a number an have a real human being listen to your rants without comment (rather like Everything, when you think about it); where everyone moves or changes jobs every few months; where products and fads come and go in weeks rather than years; where the biggest problem facing society is that people just can't deal with the pace of change; and where violent crime is an everyday part of life. In short, a world not so very unlike the real 2002.

Haflinger (a "half" person in the sense that his cognitive skills are overwhelming, but his emotions are practically non-existent due to his upbringing as a sort of rental child for couples without their own children) is both the protagonist and our tour guide through this distopian vision of the 21st century. He is a master at the game of "fencing", wherein opponents in a go-like game attempt to fence each other in - a symbolism that seems heavy-handed when I write about it, but isn't in the book. He can adopt a new persona and career overnight to take us to new territory. He is the master of every profession including the psychology of the individual. He cannot, however, form lasting emotional involvments - he defends against such attachments as they've only caused pain in the past.

Brunner must have associated with some real hackers in the production of the book. He nails many of the characteristics perfectly, even down to a love of wordplay, with subheadings like "Minor Profit in the Belly of the Great Fish", "Wined and Denied", "The Conviction of His Courage" and "Spelled 'weekend' but Pronounced 'weakened'." Haflinger slings code by dialing it as a sort of machine language into a futuristic touch-tone phone. He creates great "worms" that infiltrate the world-wide "web" of information systems and do his bidding. He strives to free the world from graft and corruption by better hacking.

Toffler gave Brunner a pretty good look at a 21st century that moved at a dizzying speed and Brunner wrote a novel that almost perfectly captured the overwhelming pace that Toffler feared. But Toffler didn't get it exactly right, 2002 isn't quite the nightmare you find in Future Shock. Humans are remarkably adaptive and keeping pace with change is still optional. We didn't start cloning humans in 1985 and we still don't have designer babies. The "disposable" culture has recycling as one of its imperatives and information systems do the people's bidding as readily as they do the bidding of corporations or governments. Brunner, however, can hardly be blamed for these.

The Shockwave Rider © 1975, Brunner Fact and Fiction Ltd., Harper & Row. ISBN: 0345324315

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