Something of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, John Brunner is one of the more intriguing though lesser recognized figures in science fiction history. Much the same as Robert Silverberg, he cut a path for himself in genre writing that is essentially pulp sci-fi but later began introducing novels of significantly greater depth to his oeuvre. Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and The Jagged Orbit are some of the most important novels the field has produced. Drastically elevating the form above common genre trappings, a fourth novel is generally added to this list of socially and politically motivated works from Brunner: 1975’s The Shockwave Rider. Though technically a forerunner to the plethora of cyberpunk texts that would emerge soon thereafter, the novel, in fact, bears more in common with the socially conscious, atypically structured, politicized novels of the New Wave. Regardless of taxonomy, it remains a prescient look at the power of information control and the fragmentation of society and identity.
The Shockwave Rider is the story of Nickie Haflinger. Raised at a hidden government school at a cost of three million tax payer dollars per year, the secrets of the system he slowly learns are enough to turn him off, and eventually away. Escaping into the world as a young adult, he uses near autistic savant capabilities to re-program the network to assume a new identity each time he is discovered by the government. By turns a televangelist and rich playboy (among other professions), he lives aimlessly, and only to avoid detection as he tries to sort out his own place in the world. But called out by the daughter of a major corporate CEO, the façade he’s created for himself slowly begins to peel away. Trouble is, exposing himself leads government searches all the closer.
The Shockwave Rider, like Brunner’s other major works, is set in a near-future America that has undergone political and social change. Extrapolating upon Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, the United States Brunner portrays has fragmented into smaller pieces of varying social structures and practices but remains loosely under the control of a government entity via a datanet they wield as their main tool of power. Large corporations likewise having access to the datanet, together they represent the ruling class, leaving most common people either ignorant or subservient to what is happening in the upper echelons of economy and politics. The Big One having struck California, what remains of the former state is now something of a frontier area, and it’s there that Haflinger eventually finds himself exploring other means of existence as the government draws ever closer on his trail.
The cover image a close archetype to William Gibson’s Neuromancer, The Shockwave Rider is as prescient as James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” in terms of the stereotypical cyberpunk motif. But the similarities are at the conceptual level, only. Those looking to pick up The Shockwave Rider and catch a piece of proto-cyberspace will not find the techy, noir, tactile realia Neuromancer is replete with. Brunner maintains a humanist approach and the datanet and humanity’s interaction with it are located in the story in less practical and more theoretical fashion. With identity and public vs. private data malleable from a political perspective, Haflinger’s personality provides the keyhole through which the concerns of data control, freedom of information, and the existence and availability of knowledge are locked and unlocked. As concerned with the relationship between individuals, society, and information technology as George Orwell was in Nineteen Eighty-four, Brunner captures much of the neuroticism and angst of living in the information age: Haflinger is anything but a man in control of himself. Thus, cyberpunk, proto-cyberpunk, information age science fiction — whichever you want to call The Shockwave Rider, it fits as long as the underlying humanist is recognized.
Less edgy noir and more soft science fiction, Brunner is not as focused on style but more on delivering layers: scenes from Haflinger’s present as he is interrogated by government officials, scenes from the past leading to his capture, and an abstract, variegated selection of thoughts, quotes, and commentary filling the interstices. Divided into unnumbered chapters, the novel can feel as fragmented as the US Haflinger roams; the shifts between the perspectives can be disassociating. (Those who have read The Jagged Orbit and Stand on Zanzibar will find The Shockwave Rider has the same alinear narrative.) The chapters move unexpectedly and briskly; some are only a sentence in length while others are several pages. But all cause pause. Obscure chapter titles force the reader to stop and think, not to mention what follows is often intentionally murky, with the story flowing irregularly as the bits of commentary supplement plot. The result is that readers are dropped into Brunner’s imaginings of a man living near-future US with few signs or guideposts, and must think to catch up. With the majority of science fiction spoon-feeding the reader, The Shockwave Rider is really something to sink the mind into.
In the end, The Shockwave Rider is the character study of a man trying to preserve his independent sense of being in a United States splintered into social factions and a datanet through which real political and economic power flows. One of Brunner’s more subtle, humanist novels, readers looking at the cover and expecting early William Gibson will be disappointed. Less edgy tech-wise, but equally powerful from an existentialist perspective in a world replete with data, the novel ends on a note more like Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed than Neuromancer. With social commentary rampant, the setting and personality issues portrayed are drawing closer to reality each day, making The Shockwave Rider yet another important science fiction work from one of its lesser recognized practitioners.