Hacked up: three books you should read


For some reason, now it’s an actual thing that happens, hacking doesn’t seem to make much of an appearance in novels these days. The new book to augment Stieg Larsson’s original trilogy, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, is out at the end of the month, but so far, now Anonymous are busy tip-tapping away on their mac books, there’s been little else new in the genre.

It seems like the genre had its heyday in the 90s and early 00s. Perhaps the reality of hacking isn’t as cool and romantic as it seemed when it was a distant possibility rather then a daily occurrence. We have slightly creepy blond men hiding in embassies and sweaty loners doxxing people who won’t send them nudes.

What if you fancy a bit of hackery though? Don’t despair. Not about this anyway, because here’s three great books that include hacking in some form.

Let’s start with the obvious one. The original cyberpunk novel, William Gibson’s Neuromancer is where it all began. Well, probably not, but it was the biggest spark the ignited interest in the world beyond the physical, the world within the computer. A future where criminals can hack your mind as well as your bank account, where you can have Wolverine style retractable claws inserted in your fingers and where artificial intelligences are trying to take over the world.

Gibson invented the word cyberspace, and ok no one uses it anymore, but that’s not the point. Back in the cultural universe where the Matrix represented the best and newest tech, it was the future. Sadly, now we’re here, in the future, everything is a little greyer than we were hoping for. But Gibson’s novel does make our reality seem a little less depressing; after all it’s not as bad as it could. Cloned rich people aren’t in charge of the world (at least, as far as we know) and you’re unlikely to wake up from an operation with a small bag of poison stitched into your vital organs. The only real AI we have is predictive text, and so far that’s about as irritating as it is useful. I can’t see it taking over the world, although if it did I can only imagine the howls of frustration as civilisation collapses, infected with madness after trying to understand why the word “doughnut” has been replaced with “pterodactyl”.

Neuromancer is an eerily prescient novel, full of tech that, if you read it now, doesn’t sound so far fetched, or far off. Peopled by a down-on-his-luck hacker, a truly fatal femme, a solider driven mad by war and manipulated into thinking he’s someone else by a terrifyingly powerful artificial intelligence, a sociopathic mercenary and a wealthy clone, it’s film noir that’s been plugged in and upgraded.

Not so much with the computer hacking, instead it’s your mind on drugs that needs hacking in Vurt. Winner of the 1994 Arthur C Clarke award, Jeff Noon’s debut novel is set in a future Manchester where drugs and alternate reality have got all twisted up, as have the minds of all the users, who suck on colour coded feathers to get out of their heads and into another world.

Personally, I’m still surprised that virtual worlds still haven’t become an actual thing. I can’t believe we can get to the moon, for no discernible reason other than grabbing a load of official moon rocks to sell to people who have never seen rocks, but we can’t get an aux lead screwed into our cerebral cortex so we can go virtual shopping for stuff we can’t use in the real world. I mean, 3D printers but not this? Not that I‘d actually want to use this, but given the amount of people who enjoy buying trees and toilet seats for their sims, I can’t believe this vein of solid gold idiocy has yet to be comprehensively mined.

In this lurid other-world people go missing and are replaced by squidgy blobs of apparently sentient goo. But only if they’re really unlucky. If Philip K Dick had grown up in Manchester listening to The Stone Roses, then this might be the sort of thing scratching around inside his head.

Blood Music
I think I’ve figured out why there aren’t that many exciting books about computer hacking. Because it’s not actually that exciting. It’s just lots of typing, and that’s what I’m doing right now and I can tell you it’s pretty bloody boring. Gawd. Especially when you’re typing rubbish. Or code (probably, I don’t know how to code but they use lots of punctuation in a manner that is not grammatically correct). My hypothesis is proven by the fact that my third book is also not about computer hacking.

Instead, it’s about hacking the cells of the body. Ok, it’s not really a hacking book, but in Greg Bear’s book, scientist Vergil Ulam hacks his own lymphocytes to create biological computers, a new intelligence, like an AI but made out of living tissue. And things kind of go downhill from there, as you might imagine.

There’s a desperate feeling of inevitability in Blood Music, the experiment is so dangerous, so unpredictable, the idea it could end well hardly registers. Even Ulam seems to know that this shit is going to go wrong, or at the very least go somewhere he can’t guess, but he grinds away, dodging anyone who might be able to stop him completing his work. The fatal disease is curiosity, the need to know what’s next, to know what everything is and explain things that don’t have an explanation.

This is one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read. And if that’s not enough to convince you, it’s also really short.

Hacking, in all of these novels, is really about finding something that wasn’t meant for you – all the protagonists stumble or force their way into someone else’s playground. They’re the home invaders of the fictional landscape; sticking their noses in where they can only make things worse. In retrospect, I’m glad hacking in the real world mostly just means people searching for aliens on the CIA’s database, belligerent EVE online players stealing other people’s weaponry and blokes wearing Time Warner-copyrighted masks making pompous YouTube videos. 

Humanity is still doomed, but let’s face it, only by accident.

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