Time Can Be Rewritten 13 (System Shock, Virgin Books, 1995)


Reasonable people, by which I’m pretty sure I mean Stephen, one of my wise and decorated commenters, expected me to go for Stephen Marley’s Managra, a metafictional romp through the history of British culture in the far future that even features Aleister Crowley. (I say pretty sure because Connecticut got slammed by the worst snowstorm I have seen in my life last weekend. Nearly a foot of heavy, wet snow falling on trees that still had leaves on them. This turned out to exceed their intelligent design parameters. The result is that 99% of my town is without power. The good news is, this time I am the 1%. The bad news is, I didn’t dodge the Internet outage, so doing things like actually checking past comments is beyond me. But I’m optimistic that I can at least keep a posting schedule.)

There are many good reasons why I would pick that book, and I see why probably-Stephen assumed I would cover it. The thing is, I’ve said an awful lot about metafiction and British culture already in the Hinchcliffe era, and while I’m sure I’ll do Managra when I take another pass in the book version, clearly I skipped it. Equally clearly, at least to those who read titles and look at pictures, is that I’m doing Justin Richards’s System Shock instead, a book which probably-Stephen expressed some surprise as to why I would do.

The answer, probably-Stephen, is that I am a sucker for 90s techno-thrillers about computers, and that I am completely powerless to resist any book that is set, quite literally, “when the information superhighway comes online” in 1998. So crack open a bottle of Zima and put on some Jewel. Because it’s 1995, and people are about to make some very, very embarrassing predictions.

That is of course, terribly unfair of me. But it's very difficult to read System Shock in 2011 without laughing at its naiveté. The most obvious example is the one we've already discussed - the charmingly dated phrase "information superhighway." This phrase rightly serves as a sort of memetic tombstone for a particular historical moment in digital technology - what we might call the last moment in which you could get away with being stupid about digital technology in public. (It is not, obviously, the end of public stupidity about digital technology in public - merely the end of where you can get away with it. Consider the degree to which, ten years after the date Richards pegs for the information superhighway coming online, the degree to which the ostensibly similar "series of tubes" metaphor proves to be a massive PR disaster for Ted Stevens)

The phrase does not have a clear inventor, although its prominence is due largely to Al Gore. Gore, who had been closely following digital issues as a Senator for decades before becoming Vice President, used the term with reasonable frequency, and so upon becoming Vice President, his newfound profile catapulted the term into the mainstream. But, equally crucially, Al Gore was a politician who liked giving money to the geeks. He was not actually a geek himself. And so his favored term had absolutely no currency whatsoever among the online community that already existed.

And notably, an online community definitely existed in 1995. Doctor Who fandom, by this point, was already dominated heavily by what went on on rec.arts.doctorwho. Yes, in the case of Doctor Who this is due to the fact that 1995 was firmly in the "cult sci-fi" era of Doctor Who's history, and so there was a large overlap between Doctor Who fans and early adopters. (This is still the case, albeit to a smaller degree - observe how much better Doctor Who's timeshift numbers are than any other drama in the UK.) Which is what is so interesting about the phrase "information superhighway" that wasn't interesting in the same way at all about, say, The War Machines, which is the television story most similar to System Shock.

The War Machines, after all, is nonsense on a stick. But being completely wrong about the nature of computers in 1966 is fundamentally different from being wrong about them in 1995, and that's what "information superhighway" ends up signifying. It's not that it's a spectacularly wrong term - it's just one that nobody who actually used the Internet took seriously. Those who used it were clearly not talking about the actual technology, but an abstract idea of it that was based on a fuzzy understanding of what it did.

(This fuzziness can and did spring from genuine ignorance, but was even more often a point of marketing. There's a fascinating moment in Bill Gates's basically terrible book The Road Ahead in which he imagines how using the Internet for video would allow customers to monitor and comment on how bouquets of flowers were being arranged at the florist. Gates, however, is far too savvy a businessman to miss the fact that this was a terrible idea that would serve no purpose other than slowing down florists as they deal with neurotic customers who don't know what they want and are virtually hovering over their shoulders. It is, in other words, included in the book not because it's a good idea or will ever happen, but because Gates likes the image and bets that his readers will like it too and thus decide that the technology he's talking about sounds wonderful.)

Which brings us back to System Shock, which definitely displays a... fuzzy understanding of digital technology. It's a host of little things - references to the compact disc revolution as a big historical moment, for instance. Which, yes, the CD was important, but in hindsight its moment as the dominant storage medium for digital technology was no longer or more significant than the floppy disk. There was nothing particularly good about the CD except that it had higher storage capacity - in fact, it was a pain to write to, and was always certain to give way to a high storage capacity medium with better read/write capacity.

Likewise the idea that I2 would rise above other tech companies because it offered a standard that it had no stake in, as opposed to, say, Microsoft is noble. And, given the failure of the open source movement to completely take over the world of digital technology, hopelessly naive. Or, for that matter, the biggest issue - the idea of a single type of chip that somehow unifies toasters, computers, train schedules, airports, and everything else into a single network.

Which gets at the heart of why this fuzzy understanding is for our purposes interesting - because it lets us get at a distinction between two kinds of science fiction. The first is what, as I understand it at least, is usually called by its adherents SF, and was previously called hard science fiction. It describes stories in which the specific material conditions of technology are what matter. And this is what I'm basically making fun of System Shock for failing at being. Basically, the problem here is that imagining the "information superhighway" as a single entity that just connects everything is hopelessly misguided.

And it's misguided in a way that really matters in terms of how the technology works and affects people. The nature of the Internet, as the 16 years since Richards wrote System Shock have largely shown, is that it works on a logic of hodgepodge and jerry-rigging. The Internet is manifestly not a single unified structure, but a massive din of independently developed technologies, data structures, and purposes that are lashed together by a bunch of (at least initially) half-assed technologies that are only fixed and upgraded when they stop working. And it's glorious. This is, in fact, exactly what makes the Internet as transformative a technology as it is.

But Richards gives no sense of that. By failing to display any fealty to the actual technology he's writing about, he ends up talking about something that doesn't quite connect to any actual reality. Richards falls into what was a standard trap of 90s fiction about the Internet and views digital technology primarily as a mechanism of control and homogeny. This badly misjudges what actually happened in two regards. First, it badly underestimates how hard it is to sort through the masses of information moving around online and how difficult it will be. Second, it fails to appreciate how transformative self-publishing would be - both on the large scale of things like (ahem) blogs and on the smaller scale of social media. The result was a future that is less Skynet and more LOLcats. And, crucially, the reasons for this are exactly the things Richards gets wrong about the technology.

That said, this is exactly the sort of science fiction Doctor Who generally isn't. For the most part, it belongs to a different tradition - one in which instead of focusing on tracing the probable consequences of scientific development we focus on broader ideas. For the most part, System Shock isn't really about how digital technology works. It's about its monsters, the Voracians, which are a sentient network of office machinery that decided to destroy all organic life, and so invade planets by masquerading as corporations.

This is responsible for most of the really clever bits of the book, including the revelation that the Voracians' speech patterns are modeled on the language of board meetings. And if you view this, as opposed to the bits about digital technology, as the heart and soul of the book, the whole thing makes a lot more sense. The digital stuff is really just window dressing, there because that's the sort of stuff that goes in a story about offices written in the mid-to-late 90s.

In this case, the book isn't really about technology. It's about cultural norms and values, and it uses the freedom that science fiction offers to radically reconfigure the structures of society in order to explore what a society with a particular set of values would look like. In its purest form, this gives the opportunity to explore genuinely alien values - values that are not human. In practice, this never happens and alien cultures are all, as the great Ted Sturgeon points out, just Meiji Japan with scales. (And, of course, the idea of the purely alien is meaningless anyway.) Instead, the values tend to be distorted or extend versions of existing human values. So, for instance, the existing culture of a 90s corporate office gets extended to an entire civilization and we get the Voracians. Here the technology that is used to explain how the society is set up is really just a plot device to get to the main point: social transformations.

The problem, though, is that the book is trying to have it both ways. It wants to be a techno-thriller and the Doctor Who version of Dilbert, despite the fact that those are irreconcilable goals. The techno-thriller, after all, depends on the power of the technology, whereas Dilbert depends on the absurdist combination of power and impotence. The former depends on understanding the implications of the technology, the latter depends on sending it up.

And the really unfortunate thing for this book is that, in 2011, it's so close to being right, since everything it gets wrong now looks absolutely typical for corporate blather about the Internet circa 1995. Because if you were writing a Doctor Who version of Dilbert, particularly one set in the 1990s, you'd pack it full of mentions of the information superhighway. But you'd do it because you were highlighting how silly the Voracians are and how little they understand human culture. The absolute last thing you'd do is have the Doctor take any of it seriously. Instead, the Doctor delivers lines like "we're dicing with death on the information superhighway to hell," and then the book suggests that this line should in some way be taken seriously. (This is a narrow point - the book indicates that the Doctor meant the line as a joke, but that it came off as very serious. But frankly, the idea of Tom Baker delivering that line should not even have a vague hint of seriousness.) But instead, the book tries to both be a pastiche of the absurdity of corporate culture and a serious-minded thriller about the future of digital technology. And ultimately, Doctor Who is only good at one of those, and doing them both at once is a bad idea anyway.

But there is one aspect of all of this that's worth remarking upon. If, as I have proclaimed, the end message of Doctor Who is that material social progress is the solution to alchemy, what do we make of the fact that Doctor Who is, generally speaking, at best merely apathetic about the actual material details of science and technology, and at worst, as this story ends up somewhat demonstrating, actively hostile to it (Since "evil alien office machinery" is a far more Doctor Who idea than "generic techno-thriller" is)? It does, after all, seem as though in order to effectively achieve the goal that the series has set out for itself it would have to take technology seriously. And yet it doesn't - even in the modern series, with Rise of the Cybermen, there's a persistent declining to take the nature of technology seriously.

The answer to this problem is beyond the scope of this entry (Oh, OK, it's that there's such a thing as materialist conceptions of history too), but over the next three entries we'll work towards an answer. Until then, I leave you with the two greatest sentences ever written about computers. For context, Voractyll is a sentient computer virus. The Doctor has created a deviant strain of the virus, and has unleashed it onto the network:
"With a digital hiss, the original Voractyll creature pulled back on its coils, then sprang at its opponent. It wrapped the Doctor's copy in a tight loop and hurled subroutines at it."
God I love trashy 90s cyberspace writing.


Spacewarp 5 years, 3 months ago

If you like trashy 90s Cyberspace, you'll love this early 1996 story from Philip Reeve (yes, he of "Mortal Engines" fame).


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BerserkRL 5 years, 3 months ago

I remember in libertarian bull sessions in 1994 (I remember the year because of where I was at the time) people were talking gleefully about how the internet was going to make everything less centralised and more anarchic, make horizontal as opposed to vertical communication much easier, etc. So there was no excuse for the Skynet vision of the internet even then.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 3 months ago

Oh, I agree wholeheartedly - anyone who knew what they were talking about understood what the actual appeal of the Internet was in the mid-90s. Again, this gets at the basic issue - failure to think about the material technology.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 3 months ago

On a related subject, I'm fond of this passage from Heinelin's I Will Fear No Evil (though I'm not especially fond of the book itself), because he wrote it in 1970:

"Uh, Eunice, this machine ... has access to the Congressional Library St. Louis Annex, does it not?"

"Certainly. Hooked into the Interlibrary Net, rather, though you can restrict a query to one library."

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Steve Hogan 5 years, 3 months ago

Well, I suppose that this book isn't much dumber about the internet than the last serial you posted about was on the subject of botany. Can someone explain exactly how the Krynoid got non ambulatory plants to attack people? "Choke him you vines! Even though you are physically incapable of doing so!"

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Stephen 5 years, 3 months ago

I'm somewhat flattered to be taking up the first three paragraphs of the entry.

Anyway, glad to see that you spun a whole load of thematic stuff relating to the era out of it.

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goatie 4 years, 6 months ago

I prefer the term "Infobahn" when being ridiculous about the internet.

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Mitch J 3 years, 6 months ago

While we're on the subject of Doctor Who, the Internet, and 1995, I'd like to direct you all to https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/rec.arts.drwho/fNc0-Zpirpg . (source: TvTropes Doctor Who trivia page)

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David Gerard 3 years, 2 months ago

"And notably, an online community definitely existed in 1995. Doctor Who fandom, by this point, was already dominated heavily by what went on on rec.arts.doctorwho. Yes, in the case of Doctor Who this is due to the fact that 1995 was firmly in the "cult sci-fi" era of Doctor Who's history, and so there was a large overlap between Doctor Who fans and early adopters."

I was part of the subculture that was commercialised as "grunge". Fanzines still had power up until 1995, because they were the fastest method to spread important cultural information ...

... and then popular Internet immediately took over, because it could spread memes ridiculously faster. Even Usenet, not just the Web. And I was struck by the power of the effect even as the Internet wasn't yet very popular at the time.

"The techno-thriller, after all, depends on the power of the technology, whereas Dilbert depends on the absurdist combination of power and impotence."

The greatest failed attempt at Dilbert in Space is, of course, the movie of Battlefield Earth. I'm told the Dilbert-like theme was in the original novel (which actually has its defenders, unlike the movie - apparently there's a good 300-page book somewhere in that 1000-page doorstop) as well.

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John Seavey 2 years, 8 months ago

It's worth mentioning that the specific line you critique: "We're dicing with death on the information superhighway to hell," is part of a long and glorious tradition in the Virgin books, that of the Back Cover Blurb. The New and Missing Adventures usually had their cover copy written long before the book itself was finished, and always included one "money quote" that was either pulled from the sample chapter or simply made up by marketing, and the author was instructed to find a way to include it in the finished work. (In one case, that of 'The Sword of Forever', Jim Mortimore simply forgot. The line on the back cover appears nowhere in the novel and has nothing to do with its plot.)

So it's entirely likely that Richards never wrote the line in question, and was forced to include it. That may go some way to explaining why it sounds so out-of-place.

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Dave 2 years, 4 months ago

Despite such a long essay, you never mention what this book is actually about!

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