When the cyberpunks hit the sandy beaches

8th June 2001 at 01:00
Laurence Alster enters a world of holographic females, pizza-delivery guys, hackers, oddballs and a billionaire cybergeek... all to relax with on a beach near you.

No doubt about it, as a job, teaching comes into its own in summer. This is largely because there isn't any - teaching, that is (though, meteorologically, the same might sometimes be said of summer). The last day of the final term always brings the same feeling - of release. At last, a chance to jet off, to potter about, to look up friends, to imagine other worldsI and to read about them.

And there are some strange worlds out there, most especially in cyberpunk fiction. This is the genre in which marginalised, often alienated characters operate in societies where the oppressive capabilities of large institutions - be they governments, corporations or religious orders - are enhanced by information technology. Future noir, it has been called, a bleak universe inhabited by hackers, crackers, phreaks and cyberpunks, not to mention other off-centre forms of human and hybrid sorts of life. Just the thing for some light summer reading.

Not that the genre is anywhere near as dreary as this outline might suggest. In fact, at its best, it can be racy, sexy, thoughtful and, not least, well-written. The novels and stories of William Gibson, the acknowledged sovereign of cyberpunk (and coiner of the word "cyberspace"), prove the point.

Idoru, for example (Penguin, pound;6.99; TES: pound;5.99). The central focus in this first of three novels set in the near future rests on an ageing rock star who falls in love with an "idoru", or holographic female "personality construct, a congeries of software agents". This strange affair takes place against an earthquake-damaged Tokyo that is being rebuilt by nanotechnology-generated organisms. In Virtual Light (Penguin, pound;6.99; TES: pound;5.99), the second of the series, ex-cop Berry Rydell scours the mean streets of San Francisco in search of a stolen pair of priceless "virtual light" glasses that store secret data. The concluding volume, All Tomorrow's Parties (Penguin, pound;6.99; TES: pound;5.99), has Rydell trailing a nameless killer known only by his lack of presence on the Net.

Weird, definitely, and often pretty complicated. But always entertaining, thanks largely to pacey narratives and writing sometimes so hard-boiled you could break your teeth on it: "Her lips, around the tan filter tip, looked like a pair of miniature water beds plastered with glittery blue candy coatI These are not kindly shadows through which he moves, the legs of his narrow trousers like the blades of a deeper darkness. This is a lurking place, where wolves come down to wait for the weaker sheep."

If William Gibson is the outright winner of the Raymond Chandler memorial trophy for lowlife imagery, other exponents of the genre are his equal for startling notions and outrageous plots. Take Neal Stephenson, whose Snow Crash (RoC, pound;6.99; TES: pound;5.99) is set in a futuristic southern California where the pizza-delivery driver hero seeks to destroy a deadly computer virus that preys on hackers. Stephenson's latest, Cryptonomicon (Arrow, pound;8.99; TES: pound;7.99), has received mixed reviews as much for its bulk - around 1,000 pages - as its content. But it's worth setting aside a fair slice of the summer to chuckle and wonder at an extravagantly imaginative tale of cryptanalysis that featurs, apart from a whole galaxy of invented eccentrics, such actual oddballs as Ronald Reagan, General Douglas MacArthur and Alan Turing.

Oddballs are, indeed, intrinsic to a genre that commonly measures the distance between our own time and that of a cyberfictional setting in terms of exaggerated implausibilities. Adrian Mathews' Vienna Blood (Jonathan Cape, pound;10; TES: pound;8) offers several choice instances. The year is 2026, and the Austrian capital is not only the seat of President Arnold Schwartzenegger but also the site of some doubtful genetic engineering uncovered by a journalist investigating a hit-and-run death. A denouement involving life-sized Daffy Duck holograms is priceless. Then there's George Foy's riveting Contraband (Bantam, pound;5.99, now out of print), a tale of 21st century techno-inspired cults, corporate monopolies and adolescent rebellion. Both are bizarre, scarcely credible and quite unputdownable.

That said, we are all having to come to terms with aspects of the Information Age that, not so long ago, would have been dismissed as downright impossibilities. In so many ways, past science fiction is now present circumstance. Naturally, writers have not been slow to put down their ideas on where recent developments are leading us.

To a brave new electronic world, if you believe Bill Gates' The Road Ahead (Penguin, pound;8.99; TES: pound;6.99). In a pallid style that fits his cybergeek reputation, the software billionaire recounts his rise to fame and riches while predicting a kind of Webbed heaven on earth, with much of the world wired up and the happier for it. Paradoxically, it's the very narrowness of Gates's vision that makes it so interesting.

Not, however, to many hackers, for whom Gates and his concern equal the devil and all his (Microsoft) works. Or so write Pekka Himanen and others in The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age (Secker and Warburg, pound;12; TES: pound;10), where hackers are defended as principled subversives - "hacktivists" - who could teach the rest of us a thing or two about enjoying life and work. The argument hasn't convinced everyone ("Have these people actually gone mad?" asked one critic), but it does make for a good read.

By contrast, Paul Taylor's Hackers (Routledge, pound;15.99; TES: pound;14.99) seeks less to persuade than to explain, and in so doing shows precisely why these electronic interlopers are so detested by many computer security experts. Taylor's style is a little heavy at times, but his interviews with hackers - "the real world representatives of cyberpunk" - do provide some entertainment as well as enlightenment.

In Secrets amp; Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World (John Wiley and Sons, pound;21.50; TES: pound;19.50), Bruce Schneier offers plenty of both. Schneier, a cryptologist and information security expert, wrote this book partially as an apology for having once preached that complex algorithms and protocols would make cyberspace transactions immune to intruders. Here, he recants with clarity, humility and humour while recalling various scams, capers and crimes that point to lessons to be learned. Short, punchy sections make it one to dip into between slapping on the factor 15 and sipping a cool drink.

* See the Online website, www.tes.co.ukonline, for a piece by Jack Kenny on two innovative educational books on the Net by Terry Freedman and Joyce Wood

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