The Worst Ending In Science Fiction History

Two notes:

First, this post is going to involve major spoilers for the novel The Shockwave Rider, originally published in 1975 by John Brunner.

Second, this post, as everything else I write, is my own opinion.  I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, and I make no claims to be a definitive source.

This having been said, I do believe that The Shockave Rider has the worst ending in the history of science fiction.

Although the novel shows up on a lot of lists of classic science fiction, and was very influential in its day, modern readers may not have read it.  Consequently, I will summarize the story.

The book was heavily influenced by Alvin Toffler’s non-fiction work, Future Shock. The title, for example, was acknowledged by the author as a direct reference.  Brunner doesn’t just take Toffler’s speculations at face value, though, he extrapolates the effect that technology has on society in ways that turned out to be chillingly prophetic.

The Shockwave Rider, in fact, accurately predicts so many social aspects of the internet that it is hard to believe that it was written in the 1970s, when computers were still room-sized machines that ran on punch cards and magnetic tape.

In particular, Brunner seemed to understand–long before anyone else I can think of–how the combination of anonymity and access to a large audience can bring out the worst in people.  He predicted many of the ways that global access can be misused, and saw both the positive and negative fallout of instant celebrity–what we call today “going viral”.

Granted, he also got a lot wrong, but all in all he painted a clearer picture of life in the early 21st Century than anyone in the Age of Disco had any right to.

Into this image he inserts Nick Haflinger, a young man with a prodigy’s ability to program computers remotely.  (The fact that Brunner has Nick hacking into computer networks via a cell phone is just one example of the novel’s creepy prescience.)

Nick is a fugitive, a serial fraud artist who uses his ability to set up new identities for himself at will.  He is a graduate from a secret government training facility–a kind of military academy, but for spies. (This is one of the novels weakest conceits, aside from the ending [and, yes, I’m getting to that] because there is little explanation for why such a thing would exist, except to bring up the Military-Industrial-Complex as a generic bad guy.)

Okay, on to the ending.  Nick has found that there is a group which is opposed to the big corporations that control the Net and has been fighting to make the flow of information truly free.  There are some entanglements, including a rather passionless romantic subplot, but that’s the gist of the plot.

So Nick has to use his super-hacker powers to save the group.  There is a direct threat that he manages to foil by sending a countermanding order on the Net, and that sequence works fairly well in a techno-thriller way.

But then, he goes on to use the power of computers to fix the world, and this is where the whole book falls apart.  Nick writes two “worms”–essentially what we would call viruses today.

The first one is far fetched, but at least the intent makes sense.  It makes every computer release any information that could impact a person to that person.  Yeah, kind of open ended there.  The examples that Brunner comes up with are mostly dealing with product safety (in case any readers missed the “CAPITALISM IS EEEEVIL!” drum that he’s been beating for the last 190 pages).  Things like printing the results of a suppressed drug test on the label of the pill bottle.  No clear mechanism for how a program could locate the information, decide where to print it, and override the machinery that prints labels is offered, but I’m willing to cut him some slack on this.  1975, remember?

It’s the second worm, the big kahuna, that makes me wonder if Brunner was under some serious editorial pressure to just finish the damned book already. Because Nick’s masterstroke has got to be the absolutely lamest idea that any vertebrate has ever had.

See, Nick writes a virus that sends a message to every computer in the world, asking the users to vote on a petition.  Now, even leaving aside that there is no way that this petition would have any legal weight (it’s kind of like if and Publisher’s Clearing House had a baby) the substance of the petition is not just completely screwy, it goes directly against everything that the character had stood for in the rest of the book.

Basically (I don’t have the exact text in front of me) it mandates that every profession’s salary be set on the basis of three criteria:

  1. The degree of danger and difficulty involved
  2. The amount of specialized training (or undefined “talent”) necessary
  3. The degree to which it benefits society.

The example that he gives of a profession that scored zero on all three axis was advertising–amusing, coming from someone whose livelihood depended entirely on advertisers.  (It’s also dead wrong, which he would have known if he’d ever had to try to sell his own books.)

I can remember being stunned at this when I first read it–and I was much less a libertarian then than I am now.  But we have a character who has spent an entire novel trying to live free of government control and at the end he proclaims that what we really need is much more government control!

The way that the petition is framed obscures the active party, but somebody would have to administer this mess. Who gets to decide what job is more difficult or requires more talent than another?  Who sets the baseline and decides how to adjust it? Who decides who “society” is and which benefits are most important? Who enforces these salaries and arrests people who are paying their electrician too much because their power is out on a holiday weekend and they really need an electrician?  For that matter, who tries and sentences violators and decides what is an appropriate punishment?

Brunner doesn’t address any of these questions, but it’s clear that he expected some faceless bureaucracy to simply appear, as if by magic, staffed by wise and compassionate people who would use their power only for good.  Nick is a slave who has spent the entire novel as a struggle, not to be free, but to simply to trade up masters.

And the craziest part is that there is already a very efficient mechanism to accomplish Nick’s stated goals.  It’s called the free market.

If a job is dangerous and difficult, then people won’t do it unless you pay them more.  If people with a particular talent are rare, then they can negotiate better salaries. If a community needs a particular service, then the citizens will agree to be taxed to pay for it.

Reading between the lines, it’s clear that Brunner felt that it was unfair that the people in general were allowed to hash out such things for themselves, rather than having a system imposed from above by a chosen few.  Emotionally, I can see his point.  I think that getting out of a warm bed to shovel snow at 5 am should pay more than going to meetings and writing reports.

What is less forgivable, however, is that he seems unable to extrapolate the consequences of his scheme.  It’s rather startling, in fact, given how well he was able to extrapolate so many other things in this book.

Suppose, for example, that it is decided that nurses should make more than plumbers because nursing is more beneficial to society.  No brainer, right? But have you ever tried to treat patients without running water? Does the plumber get to make more money fixing pipes in a hospital than, say, an advertising agency? And what happens when plumbers start hanging up their wrenches and going to nursing school because it pays better? Is someone going to force plumbers to work in a profession that doesn’t pay well because plumbers are needed? Or will plumbing suddenly become more beneficial to society so that their salaries can go up?

That’s the problem with central planning, and why nations that attempt such schemes always end up needing a nation with a free market economy to send them food.  No one can think of everything, and no central planning committee can see the whole picture and respond as fast or as effectively as the marketplace as a whole.

It’s kind of sad, because otherwise The Shockwave Rider is a pretty good book.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Publishing, On Writing, Who I am and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Worst Ending In Science Fiction History

  1. That’s pretty darn bad, but I’ll have to do some thinking about whether it’s the absolute worst ending. I browsed through my reviews looking for something worse.

    Whipping Star by Frank Herbert had an awful ending, but the entire book was awful:

    If you want to include short stories, I’m sure I can find something much worse.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I am happy to examine other contenders. For me, a book doesn’t really qualify if it’s all bad–a candidate should be an above average work that suddenly takes a nosedive at the end.

  2. Pingback: Black Box Blues: Investigating Mission Critical Metaphysics In Fiction | mishaburnett

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