Hardwired is a cyberpunk classic from the 1980s, from the first generation of dystopian sci-fi. Well, I suppose there’s been dystopian sci-fi from a long way back, but this was the first load of cyberpunk, a rampaging bandwagon that soon scooped up Orson Scott Card and everyone else. Hardwired is about Cowboy, a panzerboy, and Sarah, who doesn’t get a cool nickname but has a cybernetic snake installed inside her mouth for Horrible Reasons.
The panzerboys are based on Dutch cheese smugglers from the 1920s (I’m not making this up, I promise) who used rehabilitated German armoured vehicles when dodging customs as they transported dairy goods across borders. Nothing, it turns out, is as strange as history.
Walter Jon Williams’ panzerboys pilot 200mph hovercraft across the US, which has become balkanized following a war between the orbital corporations and people on Earth. (The terrestrials lose, funnily enough, because it’s easier to drop asteroids out of space onto surface dwellers than shoot down space stations). Instead of cheese, they carry medical supplies or computers, a black market possibly orchestrated by the Orbitals.
I first read Hardwired in my twenties (it was hard to come by slightly obscure fiction in pre-Amazon times) and I remembered the action sequences being superbly written. That didn’t disappoint. I’d forgotten about the evil old people having their consciousness backed up into new bodies (hey, Altered Carbon, 1987 just called and asked for its plot back) and especially the evil guy, Rooney, introduced about two thirds of the way through with some spectacularly nasty activity (whereas again, the limitless perversion of Richard K Morgan’s methuselahs has grown stale in the last 15 years) and I could only half remember other characters and subplots.
It’s odd what else Williams got right. There’s a passing reference to ARAMCO as one of the Orbital corporations. At the time I overlooked that as an intentional obscure bunch of letters, not realising he was referring to the Saudi Arabian oil corporation. (Other Orbital corporations include Mikoyan-Gurevich, the Soviet jet plane manufacturer, so it wasn’t like ARAMCO was just a bunch of letters grabbed at random.) There’s privatised healthcare (but this is America, after all), Miami is ruined by climate change driving up sea levels, and sneakily we don’t know exactly what year it is, so nobody can sneer at him for getting 2015 a bit wrong.
There’s also sex scenes that aren’t terribly embarrassing, a stock market manipulation that is written in such an exciting way that you don’t think it’s bullshit until some time after you stop to think about how computers and data work, and there’s that stalwart of cyberpunk, the person trapped in the computer. Compare and contrast to some of Charles Stross’ work, where the ideas are good but you can feel battered by them, and even up to the third volume of the Laundry cycle, Strops couldn’t write an action sequence that worked. It’s harder than it looks, yo.
Oh, and there’s a very annoying younger brother, an abusive father back story, and pretty much every other trope of trite sci-fi, but it feels like it was done a lot earlier, before this became hackneyed. There’s a late stage MacGuffin that provides for a happy ending, but it feels very well engineered and not a last gasp deus ex machina.
In short, I loved Hardwired and still do. My wife gave up after twenty pages because the start is kind of impenetrable if you don’t know what it’s all about (how did I manage the first time? Probably by being immersed in cyberpunk literature) but now she’s found This Is Not A Game, she’s totally on the Williams bandwagon too. Victories all round.