Heroes of Cyberspace: John Brunner

by Charles A. Gimon


(InfoNation Logo)

"For all the claims one hears about the liberating impact of the data-net, the truth is that it's wished on most of us a brand-new reason for paranoia." --John Brunner, "The Shockwave Rider", 1975.
John Brunner contributed to the world's science fiction heritage for over forty years. Publishing his first novel at age 17 in 1951, he continued to put out traditional "hard" science fiction through the fifties and sixties. Among several dozen titles he produced, four stand out: "The Sheep Look Up", "The Jagged Orbit", "Stand on Zanzibar", and "The Shockwave Rider", all published between 1968 and 1975.

"Stand on Zanzibar", which won a Hugo award in 1968, moved Brunner out of deep-space adventures and into the near-future dystopias which were popular in the late sixties and early seventies (think of the films "Soylent Green" or "A Clockwork Orange"), and which prepared the way for the cyberpunk movement.

The world of "Stand on Zanzibar" is an overpopulated and generally stressed-out world of the early 21st century. This is a world beset by all variety of problems, some related to diminishing resources, some related to the breakneck progress of technology. But it's a world not far removed from our own: nation-states still hold power, some people still have regular jobs, people even still use paper mail and voice phones. The main motif of "Stand on Zanzibar" is the stress-symptom: what happens to people when there are starting to be too many of them? Brunner makes shrewd guesses not so much about science or catastrophe, but about how politics, society and even pop culture would be affected. He coins a future slang word "mucker" to describe a person who snaps under the stress and flies into a homicidal rage.

In the world of "Stand on Zanzibar" governments and corporations hold power at the macro level, while society frays on the street. Technology is zooming ahead for those at the top: the government is able to bug an apartment and scan conversations for key words--something the NSA is said to be able to do today--and is able to hide a message inside a voice phone call by steganography. Most government resources around the world are being put into a genetics race. Brunner figures that if population control becomes a critical necessity, eugenics will become a part of the mix, for reasons of mass-psychology if nothing else. Both psychological "eptification" and physical genetic engineering are matters of national security and political urgency.

Brunner casts a satirical eye at the media as well. A world where the information technology exists to tailor broadcasts for each individual doesn't necessarily lead to a freer, richer intellectual life. News and entertainment broadcasts feature two characters called Mr & Mrs Everywhere: digital anchorpersons whose image is altered to fit the viewer. Africans see an African, Asians see an Asian, Russians see a Russian...but it's the same old corporate line. "Whatever my country and whatever my name/a gadget on the set makes me think the same."

The main information tech item in "Stand on Zanzibar" is the supercomputer called Shalmaneser, a massive processor in a small, liquid-helium-cooled receptacle. Brunner comes so close here to predicting today's computer world, but his vision here is still stuck in the fifties: offices all over the United States rent time on Shalmaneser, as though it were an early IBM mainframe, and much of Shalmaneser's output is on reams of paper.

Brunner did have a grasp of the problems of applying computers to the real world: "Isolated in the air-conditioned GT tower, one might juggle for a thousand years with data from computers and pattern them into a million beautiful logical arrays. But you had to get out on the ground and see if the data were accurate before you could put over the programming switches on Shalmaneser from 'hypothetical' to 'real'." (Brunner had a remarkable grasp of American small-talk, both in the present and in his extrapolated futures, but he was too British to make the American mistake of saying "data was" instead of "data were".)

Shalmaneser is a character in the story: it/he is famous enough to have a kind of pop-culture celebrity, and one of the plot's stronger threads involves the question of whether Shalmaneser is self-aware. Brunner speculates on the possibilities of real Artificial Intelligence--but this vision of computers in the world was not his most accurate.

The book by which John Brunner is best remembered is "The Shockwave Rider", published in 1975. It's often called the first cyberpunk novel, and deservedly so. An Internet-like continental data network is a vital element in the book, and important plot events take place on it. The setting is another near-future world where the stresses of technological change are taking their toll.. The mind/body question, identity and information control are all central themes--themes that would later be taken up by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Rudy Rucker, and other writers of the eighties and nineties.

Nickie Haflinger, the protagonist, could be called a proto-hacker: an escapee from a U.S. government sponsored human optimization project, manages to move from identity to identity by accessing government databases through telephone keypads. In "Shockwave Rider", the phones are veephones or videophones--you could almost replace them with videoconferencing PCs without harming the story. While telephone "phreaking" had been known in Britain since the early sixties, Brunner shows stunning insight into the potential for one clever person to manipulate computer networks for their own purposes. "He deduced from first principles that there must be a way of allowing authorized persons to drop an old identity and assume a new one, no questions asked. The nation was tightly webbed in a net of interlocking data-channels...confidential information had been rendered accessible to total strangers capable of adding two plus two. (The machines that make it more difficult to cheat on income tax can also ensure that blood of the right group is in the ambulance which picks you up from a car crash. Well?)" The netted world of "Shockwave Rider" is very much our own world of government and business databases--Brunner wasn't predicting, as much as he was warning us about the present.

Brunner's future in "Shockwave Rider" includes an info-futures betting pool called Delphi. Even as people struggle to keep up with the tiring pace of technological change, they can win money by betting on the next breakthrough. (There is info-futures betting for entertainment only on the Internet today at http://if.arc.ab.ca/IF.shtml). Brunner sees this not as a free-market instrument, but as a tool to be manipulated by government bureaucrats who fiddle with the odds: "What the public currently yearned for could be deduced by watching the betting, and steps could be taken to ensure that what was feasible was done, and what was not was carefully deeveed. It was a task that taxed the skills of top CIMA experts to ensure that when the government artificially cut Delphi odds to distract attention from something undesirable no other element in the mix was dragged down with it." What appears on the outside to be freedom is actually government control by information feedback.

The same government think-tanks and secret labs are doing fairly gruesome work in genetic engineering--another theme that would appear in later cyberpunk novels, especially by Gibson or Bruce Sterling.

Another remarkably prescient element in "Shockwave Rider" is a mysterious service called Hearing Aid: an anonymous, untraceable service that people can call up and confess their sins and problems to. Hearing Aid doesn't offer help--it just listens, which is therapeutic enough. The service is so important that the government grudgingly tolerates its existence, in spite of its rejection of data-collecting. The structure and challenges of running such a service are familiar to anyone who has dealt with anonymous remailers or similar privacy services on today's Internet.

Hearing Aid is protected by its own 'tapeworm' on the data net: the idea that Brunner is most remembered for today. Brunner describes various bits of agent software that run on his data-net by themselves, calling them tapeworms or worms, replicating phages, and viruses. The terms have entered today's computer jargon; Brunner's viruses are the computer viruses we know today. Not only does Brunner see this possibility, he sees people and institutions using 'worms' in a form of information warfare.

To Brunner, control is control of information; either digital data or genetic code. Governments may use information to keep a lock on society, but individuals may take find power for themselves as well by controlling and manipulating information. The powers that be have access to the data-net, but "in theory everyone does, given a dollar to drop into a pay phone". Brunner identified himself with the political left (including anti-war actions in Britain during the sixties) but when he's read today, his outlook seems so much more concerned with the rights and dignity of the individual, rather than trying to social-engineer whole societies. This spirit is very much the "Internet ethos" we see today.

John Brunner got critical respect as a writer of science fiction, but he never gained the overwhelming fame or fortune that the top few writers enjoy, and that he probably deserved as well. A man who remained active in the science fiction world till the very end, he passed away at the 53rd World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow, Scotland. It was fitting and poignant that his fans would hear the news of his death on the Internet:

From: sch@panix.com (Stuart C. Hellinger) 
Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.written 
Subject: The Death of John Brunner 
Date: 26 Aug 1995 11:16:59 -0400 
Organization: PANIX Public Access Internet and UNIX, NYC 

[ Article crossposted from rec.arts.sf.fandom ] [ Author was
Stuart C. Hellinger ] [ Posted on 25 Aug 1995 13:56:16 -0400 ]

I received a phone call from Sharon Sbarsky over at Intersection
in Scotland.

John Brunner suffered a stroke last night while attending the
convention  and passed away earlier today.

This is not generally known by the convention attendees as yet.

-SCH!     (Stuart C. Hellinger     sch@panix.com)

From: "Kurt C. Siegel" Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.written Subject: John Brunner Date: 25 Aug 1995 18:40:40 GMT Organization: GlobalOne NewsGateway British Author John Brunner, in Glasgow Scotland for the 53rd World Science Fiction Convention (Intersection) suffered a massive stroke and passed away Friday, 25 August, 1995. More details as they are known. -- Kurt C.Siegel Deputy Vice Chair, North America Intersection

John Brunner saw science fiction as the "literature of the open mind". He foresaw the wild progress we're making in info technology today, but he saw progress with a critical eye. He never forgot that human dignity and wisdom is the heart of our culture, and while technology may serve us in ways we never imagined, it can never replace that.

Matthew Tepper has a tribute to John Brunner in his web pages at:


More tributes to John Brunner from the Worldcon newsletter are at:


A list of titles by John Brunner can be found at:


You can find the rules for "fencing", a board game Brunner invented and described in "The Shockwave Rider", at:


Charles A. Gimon teaches an Introduction to the PC class at the English Learning Center in south Minneapolis. He can be reached at gimonca@skypoint.com or ay778@freenet.carleton.ca.
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