Volume 23, Number 01, Fall, 2004

The Shockwave Rider

By John Brunner

Del Rey, 1995: $19 ISBN 0345467175

Reviewed by Jorge Codina
November 2004

The Shockwave Rider, first published in 1975, is one of Brunner’s classic dystopian novels. Like his other dystopian works, he focuses on one specific topic. In Stand on Zanzibar he deals with over-population, in The Sheep Look Up with pollution, and in The Jagged Orbit with racism. The Shockwave Rider looks at future shock, or information overload, along with an omni-present state. In my opinion it is the best of the four.

It contains two messages for libertarians. The first is the future in which government officials and their friends, obsessed with keeping power, manipulate the information people have access to, use information about everyone for their own nefarious purposes, and treat people not as individuals with rights, but merely data items to be used and discarded as necessary. The state does not exist to protect people, in fact has absolutely no interest in doing so. The resultant society is one where no one has any effective rights and people are plagued by individual and institutional predators. This is Brunner’s intended message.

The other message is equally if not more important for those who value freedom. The solution proposed by the protagonist will result in a society that will also lack liberty and be just as restrictive, just in different ways. The solution to the evils of one set of elites running the government, is to replace them with another set of elites. Not to recognize the rights of individuals, not to ensure liberty for all. This is even more disturbing than the society portrayed. I doubt this was the author's intent.

It is fascinating to look at this book from the retrospect of 29 years. While many of the concepts, such as people constantly changing their life-style and going into shock because of it, or routine nuclear reactor meltdowns, seem a bit far-fetched, many of the specifics referred to in the book have come to pass or are starting to occur. Some are quite frightening.

Very early in the book we learn that the police, and just about anybody else, can monitor any communication. All information about everyone is online and available to those who know how to manipulate the net. You can destroy someone's credit rating to the point where their power is cut off and they can’t even use the telephone. Of course this can be sorted out, but it takes a long time. This is very similar to the problems many face today with identity theft and other information related crimes.

Public schools are warehouses for children where they are subjected to constantly changing theories of “education,” none of them having to do with imparting knowledge. The violence of society is magnified in the schools. Multiple marriage couples need to figure out how to allocate children. Everyone, from children to adults, taking several drugs to solve problems, real and imagined. We see people turning to bizarre methods of therapy. While the current world has not, to my knowledge, produced a method as horrific as Anti-Trauma we do have “Attachment Therapy”and other methods which have resulted in injury and sometimes even death for patients.

It does not take much imagination to see what we call “Reality TV” turning into the sick, twisted spectacle of children walking on a thin plank over a pit of live alligators.

One could argue that science has always been politicized and dogmatized, but today even more so.

The book has a version of the Internet, complete with online gambling, a futures market in ideas, and worms. In fact, the term “worm” was coined at Xerox PARC from the tapeworm in the book. Keep in mind that this was written less than a year after the TCP protocol was first specified.

Brunner also predicted the response to information overload on the part of some people: “...some people can handle only a restricted range of stimuli, and prefer to head for a mountain commune...or even emigrate to an underdeveloped country...” You see this in the Voluntary Simplicity, Back to Earth ,and Intentional Community movements. Also, in the increasing numbers of younger couples, many with children, that are emigrating to countries such as Costa Rica. When asked why they left their home countries (typically the United States and Canada) most say “to escape the constant commercialism,” i.e., information overload.

All in all, as a predictive work, The Shockwave Rider was amazingly perceptive. The book opens with the protagonist, Nick, being interrogated by Paul Freeman. Nick has been captured six years after he escaped from a special school, where the stated purpose was to achieve “wisdom.” In reality it was to train captive genius. The brain race having long replaced the arms race, governments all over the world are making every attempt to ensure that they have “wisdom” on their side.

It is here one gets the first warning that the book will not propose a libertarian solution to society’s problems. We are informed that in China, Brazil, Korea, Ghana and the Philippines, ”wise“ leaders have emerged and are making great strides in solving the problems of their countries. There is no indication that they are doing this by handing responsibility to individuals. There are a few hints that, in fact, exactly the opposite is happening.

Freeman is both trying to find out everything Nick did during those six years and convince him that the government’s current approach is in fact the only viable one. During this process we learn more and more about the society, and see that Freeman is both failing to convince Nick, and that his own convictions are wavering.

Nick gets caught by making a series of mistakes. First of all he joins a major corporation so that he can use their resources to find out if his personal code is still safe. While there, he gets noticed enough to be offered an interview for a permanent position. On the interview board will be a staff member from his old school. Nick panics, and with the help of Kate, runs off to a paid avoidance zone. Inadvertently drawing attention to himself, he and Kate leave for Precipice, a very extreme paid avoidance community, where they are not connected to the all pervasive data net.

Here we get the next indicator that a libertarian approach is not part of the author’s vision. While walking through Precipice, Kate and Nick are overwhelmed by the amazing design of the community. They comment, “An architect who could do this could design a planet.” You get the feeling that all one needs to do is put the right people in charge and things will be fine.

Precipice supports itself via grants from wealthy individuals because it runs a service called Hearing Aid, which listens to people’s problems, thereby providing some comfort. The state hates Hearing Aid because, it rightly suspects, many people who call are revealing secret information. However, they can’t shut it down because of a tapeworm that is being used for defense. If they attempt to shut it down it will destroy a large portion of the net. Nick, discovering an attempt to attack Hearing Aid, writes a much more effective tapeworm for them.

A fight causes Nick and Kate to leave Precipice. Kate returns home, but Nick goes to another community where he once again draws attention to himself, is identified and captured.

Freeman’s interrogation does not yield the results his boss wants, namely, how to shutdown the tapeworm that is protecting Hearing Aid. So, against Freeman’s will, the government arrests Kate and tells Freeman to use her as a lever against Nick. Freeman’s convictions, already weakened by his conversations with Nick, collapse completely. He helps Nick and Kate escape, then vanishes himself.

In the months after their escape Nick works to bring down the state by using his hacking skills. His conversations with Kate show a real understanding of the problem. That government and organized crime are no different and “...you’re in government. Your continuance in power has always depended on the ultimate sanction: ‘if you don't obey we'll kill you.’”

He also seems to be leaning towards a freedom-oriented solution with statements such as “...I absolutely had to find a way out—not just for you, not just for me, but for everybody.” And “[t]he opposite of evil. Everything implied by the shopworn term ‘free will.’”

At this point the libertarian reader has hope that the solution will increase freedom, despite the earlier contrary indications.

The attack starts by exposing all information that the government and its friends want hidden, including the fact that Anti-Trauma therapy causes more problems and 41% of the government budget is either waste or corruption. Anyone can get any information regarding violation of laws or regulation concerning public health, environmental protection, corruption, fair business, and taxation. A libertarian starts to seriously cringe.

Despite Brunner’s clear identification of state power as the problem, and freedom as the answer, the first attack on the state will have the effect of exposing many who have been successfully resisting the corrupt state all along. It will put good people in danger because it treats those who resist the state the same as those who benefit from it. Only victims are spared. This is horrible.

And it gets worse, the ultimate solution is to hold a plebiscite, with two very simple propositions. On the surface the propositions seem innocent enough, especially since there are libertarian approaches to implementing them, but libertarian approaches are not being considered.

The first proposition reads: “That this is a rich planet. Therefore poverty and hunger are unworthy of it, and since we can abolish them, we must.” As explained a few pages before, what this means is that “[i]f people vote for Proposition #1, no greedy shivver will get his wall-to-wall three-vee as long as anybody’s homeless. He won’t get his round-the-planet airship cruise so long as people are dying from any disease we know how to cure.”

The second reads: “That we are a civilized species. Therefore none shall henceforth gain illicit advantage by reason of the fact that we together know more than one of us can know.” Now, if you use a libertarian interpretation of the term “illicit” then this is not bad. The wording needs a bit of work, but all in all it is ok. However, as we see when Nick is explaining the implementation of this to Kate, the interpretation of this is far from libertarian:

“Categorizes occupations on three axes. One: necessary special training, or uncommon talent in lieu—that's to cover people with exceptional creative gifts like musicians or artists. Two: drawbacks like unpredictable hours and dirty working conditions. Three: social indispensability. ...For instance a doctor will score high on special training and social importance too, but he can only get into the top pay bracket if he accepts responsibility for helping emergency cases ... a garbage collector, though rating low on special training will do well on scales two and three. All public servants like police and fireman will automatically score high on scale three and most on scale two as well...a lot of parasites who were at the top...will now pay tax at ninety percent since they score zero on all three axes. ...People in advertising, for example.”

Other than the gross lack of individual choice that the above excerpt implies, they also imply a huge government bureaucracy to define occupations and class them on the three scales. Of course, if I was in that department I would make sure that my position 1) required special training, 2) had “difficult” working conditions, and 3) was socially indispensable. You can just see the huge lobbying efforts by, for example, advertising executives, to show how in fact they are more important to society than nurses, engineers, industrial workers, and some types of “musicians” that just generate loud noise.

And of course, people like the FBI agents who captured Nick, Freeman and his boss, and other officials both elected and not, would “automatically score high.” What bureaucrat wouldn't love this new system?

Brunner’s solution demands a technocratic state which will be larger than the one it replaces and will interfere much more directly in the lives of all the people. The warning for libertarians, and all who love freedom, is that those who want to get rid of the current evil are not necessarily offering something better. The new approach may in fact be worse.

Finally, the ending was disappointing from a story point of view. The tale was very imaginative and painted a society which was very believable. But the ending lacked imagination. Even a non-libertarian ending where a radically new form of government was instituted, one which dealt with the special characteristics of the information age, would have been much better.

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