The Perils of Cyberspace: Hackers in Science Fiction

Snow Crash

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by Kyt Dotson

With the advent of computer technology rose an entirely new breed of explorer and seed for criminality—every dimension that technology gives our society, also expands the horizons of interpretation and exploitation. Information always sits at the core of all competitive operations—both corporate and military—getting the jump on the other team is all about knowing what they’re up to, and making sure they don’t know what you’re up to. Computers present a persistence of information, a place to store, collage, process, and even protect data.

So emerges a new type of warrior for a different type of war: the hacker. A soldier trained and equipped for cyberwarfare. But also represented is a new type of juvenile explorer, a culture of immature yet extremely capable individuals who can bring corporations to their knees with a computer and the press of a button.

With all the brouhaha about Lulz Security in the news right now, it seems like an excellent time to examine the portrayal of hackers in science fiction. LulzSec has made quite a name for themselves, not by being proficient in their skills, but through being loud and talkative in a sort of folk hero celebrity sense. The concept of hackers running wild in cyberspace, stealing people’s secrets and plastering them across the globe has been a long running theme in cyberpunk. In fact, the drama that unfolded with LulzSec recently almost summarizes like a William Gibson novel:

“Celebrity hackers rise from the criminal background of the Internet breaking into websites and releasing scores of e-mail addresses and passwords. They use relatively unsophisticated attacks against targets of opportunity and generally act like disruptive children. Others in the community find this distasteful and attempt to unmask them. This leads to highly publicized fight between the group of Internet pranksters, an ex-military hacker, and another cyberactivist bent on revealing the celebrities real identities.”

Today, William Gibson is considered to be the father of cyberpunk, a breed of science fiction that deals primarily with computer technology and how it will shape and guide human culture. In his book, Neuromancer, Gibson introduced a dystopian world with world-spanning networks of information technology. Corporations could fight and die at the end of a pointed bit of data. In his story, Burning Chrome, an individual made her entire career as an information broker in a similarly designed world.

In the Otherland series by Tad Williams, a group of child hackers appear in the virtual generated cyberworlds as a band of flying, yellow monkeys. The kids, who basically grew up as latchkey children connected to the net every day quickly discovered every nook and cranny they could sneak into. While they didn’t have the bravado or criminal enterprise of expert hackers, they were virtually unstoppable—try keeping a roving band of children out of a derelict building with only chain link fences. In the story, hackers were paramount to the plot and their activities carried the narrative about strange corporations and the ingenuity of the human spirit.

Neal Stephenson presented another compelling and fun hacker-based universe in his novel Snow Crash. Although the hero of the story had an odd name, Hiro Protagonist, he began the novel with what is considered to be one of the best exemplar of a hook in a science fiction book. (Don’t believe me? Go read the first two paragraphs.) In Snow Crash, as with many cyberpunk stories, the world is mostly ruled by vicious corporations who use information technology as a weapon against one another. Most of the population who interact with hackers exist in virtual worlds. Hiro happens to be a veteran of some very old wars that occurred across these digital landscapes.

Science fiction movies have also gotten into the hacker scene by playing on the hopes and fears of their audience and the general folklore about what hackers could do. WarGames (1983) presented a suspenseful plot involving a young hacker who used his skills to break into the Department of Defense of the United States and gain access to WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a mainframe and computer network that rather lived up to its name. He managed to get it to nearly start World War III by tasking it with instructions to target and potentially nuke locations believing it was a video game.

The movie Hackers (1995) became the instrumental thriller for hacker culture in science fiction media presenting the average hacker as a high-school student with a lot of geeky knowhow. It also starred Angelina Jolie who went on to become an action hero star in a multitude of movies. In Hackers the storyline invented a bunch of underdogs—the technically savvy high-school hackers—against a giant evil corporation seeking world dominance.

Video games have also gotten into the scene of portraying hackers. Although it’s hard to tell, the cult classic game Rez is all about an intruder into cyberspace dancing among rendered programs and pulling secrets out of cyberspace. As with movies, in video games cyberspace is often portrayed as a neon-painted darkness, filled with shoals of computer code, images, flat planes of light, and other user interface effects.

The first System Shock puts the player into the shoes of a hacker who gets caught attempting to break into the controlling intelligence of a space station named SHODAN. In trade for his own life (and a fancy neural implant) the hacker agrees with the local evil corporation to remove the ethical constraints from the station AI. Of course, this goes as expected and at the beginning of the game the hacker finds themselves up against a very dangerous foe: SHODAN herself. As a result, the hacker must navigate the narrative that lead to the hacking of the intelligence, the fallout from the event, and bring the story to a conclusion by righting the wrong that lead the plot into its black spiral.

Hackers now have a long and distinguished folklore grown out of science fiction stories. They’re so ubiquitous in our modern information culture that most science fiction novels have at least one character exhibiting leet skills. Even stories that have little to do with computers or cyberwarfare make some sort of passing commentary about the existence of hackers.

They’re the chrome rats in the walls of high technology and an excellent vehicle to tell stories about humanity’s relationship with information and computers.

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