tenpastmidnight blog

Making hay while the sun shines

Shockwave Rider / Mr Apology

Jeremy Clarkson has been fronting a show on BBC2: 'Inventions That Changed the World.' I caught up with one about the telephone the other night and 'Mr Apology' was mentioned. Apparently this is an answerphone service that was started by an artist for people to apologise for whatever they felt guilty about. I thought in the show they mentioned it started in the 1960s and I thought "Ah, they inspired Hearing Aid" a similar service mentioned in the book Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner, which I read a few weeks ago.

Doing a bit more research (well, Googling) and found an old article from Wired magazine about Mr Apology, and it actually started in 1980. As Shockwave Rider was written in 1975, I'd have to guess it was the inspiration.

John Brunner has written some of the most prescient science fiction I've found. In Shockwave Rider he coined the term 'worm' for a computer program that would distribute itself around a system. He also wrote about people using terminals, well, telephone keypads, to re-write their centrally-held personal history across a world-wide information system. Hmm, a world-wide information system, sound like anything you might be reading this through? Also in the same book, ideas around gathering together huge amounts of data and extrapolating trends from it (data mining, rather popular at the moment.)

All of these ideas are in the background to the main story of the developing character of, well, the-man-with-no-name, the man of the chameleon identity. A semi-hot-housed preacher / systems analyst / hacker-for-hire, depending on the day and the personality he has adopted. Much of the story takes place as an interrogation between him and Paul Freeman, a later graduate from the same hot house system. This allows arguments over the different ways society could have developed, and who it affects the people living in it. The future Brunner suggests, a 'plug-in society' where having short-term jobs and shallow relationships is seen as the norm and to be encouraged seems to still be just around the corner, especially resonant as I'm contracting at the moment.

Shockwave Rider is interesting, although I think Stand on Zanzibar was a better read, and has lot of interesting ideas and predictions in it as well. While authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson get mentioned whenever the internet and science fiction are linked, but Brunner was there, thirty years ago, writing about what's happening now. He's not right about everything, thank goodness, but he is right about a hell of a lot, and most of his stories are not about how good things are, they're about how things could have been better. Those are warnings we should be listening to, before more of his predictions come true.
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