John Brunner – The Shockwave Rider

The Shockwave Rider has been listed among Brunner’s great novels along with Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up, and it has been written up as a novel that anticipated the emergence of the internet and coined the term worm for a self-replicating, malicious computer program. Wikipedia article on The Shockwave Rider. So is it?

Not quite. On reading it, I found it weaker than the other three “great” Brunner novels. It’s simpler and more linear and while it had some of the kaleidoscopic trappings of the other novels, it didn’t quite take them as far as the other three did. It also felt very much like a repeat exercise. Stylistically, it didn’t gel for me either, though on the plus side, it did have an engaging female character in Kate Lilleberg.

As for it anticipating the internet, it was a bit late for that, having been published in 1975 when DARPANET had been around for a few years. The use of the term “worm” does seem to be original though what Brunner speaks of is “tapeworms” and his description of them suggests that he conceptualizes them as being essentially worm-like in structure as well as behaviour. In other words, the lead character’s descriptions of his worms suggests that they are segmented creatures and that this is part of the reason why they are called that.

Of course, those are mere technological details. What makes Brunner’s most ambitious work interesting is his broad-brush depiction of entire social systems. In The Shockwave Rider, what Brunner puts under the microscope is the influence of extensive data registration and manipulation on society as a whole and the well-being of its individuals, and what happens when corporations and governments try to control and suppress their data while still having access to that of individual consumers and citizens. And in its handling of these concepts, The Shockwave Rider does not disappoint. Some choice quotes:

At Tarnover they explained it all so reasonably! Of course everybody had to e given a personal code! How else could the government do right by its citizens, keep track of the desires, tastes, preferences, purchases, commitments and above all location of a continentful of mobile, free individuals?
Granted, there was an alternative approach. But would you want to see it adopted here? Would you like to find your range of choice restricted to the point where the population became predictable in its collective behavior?

Chilling, huh? And (in character):

The behaviorists reduced the principle of the carrot and the stick to the same kind of ‘scientific’ basis as the Nazis used for their so-called racial science. It’s not surprising they became the darlings of the establishment. Governments rely on threat and trauma to survive. The easiest populace to rule is weak, poor, superstitious, preferably terrified of what tomorrow may bring, and constantly being reminded that the man in the street must step into the gutter when his superiors deign to pass him by. Behaviorist techniques offered a meanst to maintain this situation despite the unprecedented wealth, literacy and ostensible liberty of twenty-first-century North America.

Unlike The Sheep Look Up, The Shockwave Rider ends more or less happily, with the “good guys” dealing some serious blows to the (as always mostly anonymous) powers-that-be. It’s well worth reading if you’ve already read the other classic Brunner novels and are hungry for more.

Edited to add: one impressive feat of technical prescience that hasn’t been mentioned as much in criticism of The Shockwave Rider is that the novel anticipated the rise of the mobile phone: ubiquitous phones tied to a person rather than a place, which are used, among other things, as data devices.