Entry updated 4 December 2023. Tagged: Theme.
As with Computers, sf representations of the internet have tended to lag somewhat behind reality – a noted example being the Far-Future galactic communications board in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), which precisely and wittily reproduces the format and occasional incoherence of contemporary Usenet newsgroup discussions (then a major and now a fading aspect of the net). Nevertheless there have been some remarkable examples of sf Prediction in this area. Murray Leinster's "A Logic Named Joe" (March 1946 Astounding), as by Will F Jenkins, not only imagines a device closely similar to a multimedia desktop Computer, complete with the now familiar screen and keyboard, but posits that such "logics" would have a place in every household; that they would all be linked via internet-style Communications; that they would offer many functions besides computation, such as delivery of entertainment and information (weather reports and plane schedules are mentioned), online shopping, videophone facilities including conferencing and recording, and much more; and that despite the threat of dangerous information becoming freely available, their transformation of life is irreversible:
Logics changed civilization. Logics are civilization! If we shut off logics, we go back to a kind of civilization we have forgotten how to run!
Also prophetic is John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider (1975), featuring viral programs called worms which can propagate themselves about the net, usually to malign effect. The novel climaxes with the launch of a philanthropic worm which ransacks online databases, releasing any and all information whose concealment is not in the public interest (examples given include dubious food additives, corrupt government/business practices and dangerously ineffective therapies). Both Leinster's and Brunner's scenarios – but especially the latter – foreshadow post-1980s "information wants to be free" controversies and the twenty-first-century Wikileaks uproar. Earlier, the first sf depiction of a computer virus in the modern sense seems to be in Gregory Benford's "The Scarred Man" (May 1970 Venture), whose rogue program propagates by telephone to infect host computers and is named (by its creator) VIRUS. Similar but post-Brunner territory is traversed by the AI which expands through linked mainframe systems in The Adolescence of P-1 (1977) by Thomas J Ryan.
The initial scenario of E M Forster's "The Machine Stops" (November 1909 The Oxford and Cambridge Review), with human interaction confined to audio-video links, distantly anticipates later Paranoia about net couch potatoes lacking any true social life, though the voice of rebellion is soon heard: "I want to see you not through the Machine [...] I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine." Later though still prescient visions of internet-like global communication are James Cooke Brown's The Troika Incident: A Tetralogue in Two Parts (1970) and Algis Budrys's Michaelmas (August-September 1976 F&SF; exp 1977): the latter's proto-net is crucial to world news services and (if only for plot convenience) interfaces with all manner of peripheral electronics including lifts and automatic doors. Robert A Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil (July-December 1970 Galaxy; 1970) mentions in passing that a secretary's voicewriter machine is "Hooked into the Interlibrary Net" for information download. Joanna Russ's "Nobody's Home" (in New Dimensions 2, anth 1972, ed Robert Silverberg) suggests inter alia the dizzying sense of information overload in net-like Communications involving remote computers. The future Earth in the background of Joan Slonczewski's Still Forms on Foxfield (1980) enjoys universal information access and communication very much along the lines of the coming real-world net.
More routine stories of internet-precursor systems tended to focus not so much on the actual information technology as on a vague sense that sufficient connectivity could spontaneously generate inimical AIs: early examples are Fredric Brown's "Answer" (in Angels and Spaceships, coll 1954) and Arthur C Clarke's "Dial 'F' for Frankenstein" (January 1965 Playboy). The Cyberpunk movement helped shape the real-world internet precisely because the potent visual metaphors of William Gibson's Cyberspace influenced many net architects; related wish-fulfilment scenarios were subjected to probing Satire in Headcrash (1995) by Bruce Bethke. AIs haunting the net, as in Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) and Count Zero (1986) – earlier examples appear in Algis Budrys's already-cited Michaelmas and in Vernor Vinge's True Names (1981 dos) – have since become something of a Cliché. Robert Sawyer revisits Upload to the net in The Terminal Experiment (1995) and spontaneous AI formation in his WWW trilogy opening with WWW: Wake (2009; vt Wake 2009).
John Barnes's Mother of Storms (1994) makes incidental use of the internet, foreseeing a net that has moved from the mere communications system of its time to today's delivery of multi-channel entertainment. Terry Pratchett's Discworld series – especially Going Postal (2004) – half-jokingly offers a retro internet based on mechanical "clacks" semaphore towers, with suspiciously familiar software protocols, "c-mail" addresses, and even dedicated hackers. Works engaging with the Near-Future possibilities of the net, including security, privacy, data havens and issues of personal freedom, include Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (1999), Charles Stross's Halting State (2007) and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (2008) and For the Win (2010). Dystopian views of the present or near-future internet, focusing on the seductive tyranny of social media and the increasing impossibility of real privacy (the latter already addressed to some extent in The Shockwave Rider), include M T Anderson's Feed (2002) and Dave Eggers's The Circle (2013). Robert Charles Wilson's Spin (2005) features a kind of Disaster in which the net is incidentally disabled by the loss of Earth's geostationary satellites – an erroneous assumption since most internet data actually travels by cable. A Brunneresque worm infecting CCTV systems in Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel (2007) publicizes, via the eponymous net-video channel, the plight of those imprisoned, Tortured and killed by the forces of both terrorism and supposed counter-terrorism. Benign Alien Invasion of Earth in Steven Erikson's Rejoice: A Knife to the Heart: A Novel of First Contact (2018) involves as a matter of course taking control of our Internet. The protagonist of Calvin Kasulke's Several People Are Typing (2021), trapped in his PR company's Slack online-chat system, briefly finds a kind of Transcendence in exposure to the entire Internet.
Cyberspace-based adventure series, generally offering little serious analysis of the net's future potential, include Mel Gilden's and Ted Pedersen's humorous Cybersurfers sequence beginning with Cybersurfers: Cyberspace Cowboys (1995); the late-1990s Shared-World enterprise The Web (see The Web), whose contributors included Stephen Baxter, Eric Brown, Pat Cadigan, Peter F Hamilton, James Lovegrove and Ken MacLeod; and Steve Barlow's galaxy-spanning Outernet sequence beginning with Outernet #1: Friend or Foe (2002).
To a certain extent, the internet we know was inspired by science fiction: its inventor Tim Berners-Lee has stated that one of the seeds of his original World Wide Web concept was Arthur C Clarke's above-cited "Dial F for Frankenstein" (January 1964 Playboy), in which the world telephone network's connectivity spawns an AI. [DRL]
- Gregory Benford. "The Virus-Scarred Man" (April 2011 The New York Review of Science Fiction) [pp23-23: mag/]
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