Wednesday, July 03, 2013

14. The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

John Brunner has long been on my list of sci-fi authors to read.  I found a nice hardcover book club edition with this cover on it at one of my two (!) local english used bookstores.  I suspect that this was perhaps not the perfect choice of a Brunner novel to read.  It has some cool ideas and the beginning in particular was enjoyably disorienting, but it gets bogged down in philosophical conjectures without having built up a convincing enough world to make them interesting.  It takes place in the not too distant future in a semi-dystopian North American society where everyone has a unique ID and people's identities are based on the data about them.  Sounds topical, doesn't it?  It is and isn't because Brunner's prediction of the size and nature of external data was way off (a massive worm program that dominates the network is a million bits long for instance.  One can't fault him for this, as it was written in the early '70s and there are some concepts that he totally nailed (the worm for instance). 

The main character is a genius who escaped from an elite university and now switches from life to life by changing his identity number.  He lives in a state of fear, constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities that he fears are searching for him.  This part of the book is quite cool.  It is interspersed with future scenes of him being interrogated, which lets the reader know that he does indeed get caught.  The narrative gets going when he takes the role of a corporate analyst and meets the free-spirited daughter of one of his colleagues.  She guesses that he is not who he says he is and this is the catalyst that sets the two of them on the run.

It sounds pretty straightforward, but there are too many socio-philosophical digressions.  Much of their discussion is based on concepts put forth in the book which aren't well-grounded enough in the actual story, so you kind of don't really care.  You can read the political subtext in it as well, but it's Brunner extrapolating what a post-Nixonian world would look like 50 years from when he wrote it.  It all gets a bit obscure.  Then in the last third of the book, the scope suddenly becomes quite massive, with the hero basically taking down the entire system. It just didn't hold together well for me.

So an interesting book with some neat concepts, but not a great story.  Anyone have a better Brunner book to recommend?


Kate M. said...

I seem to remember Stand on Zanzibar was more entertaining to read, but I haven't read any Brunner in a long time. He was a "just over the horizon" SF writer, so his stuff does not always date well. "Stand" is about overpopulation among other things.

I discovered later he'd kind of lifted the style of hopping along among news clippings and other story fragments from John Dos Passos. But it's not bad.

Anonymous said...

Stand on Zanzibar (his masterpiece)
Sheep Look Up (dystopian Zanzibar)

OlmanFeelyus said...

Thanks Kate. I think I need to read Stand on Zanzibar. With the understanding of its context, I think I should be able to enjoy it more.