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Fifteen Minutes Into the Future

The realization that next year will be the 20th anniversary of Neuromancer got me to thinking about my first roommate. He was a hacker and a phreak. I don't mean those posers we get now. Not everyone who commits computer crimes is a hacker. Hacking is the ability to break into (hack) computer systems. A phreak is someone who hacks long distance phone codes. Taking his assumed name from the video game Zaxxon (Why exactly he changed the "a" to an "o" is a mystery), Zoxxon was a hacker along the lines of Gibson's fictional Chase.

He positioned his weapon of choice (an Atari ST) in our dining room. Declaring his intentions to the world, Zoxxon then hung a large pirate flag on the wall behind the computer.

"Let me tell you what to do if men-in-suits knock on the door looking for me," he began.

"Huh?" This was all new to me.

Men-in-suits. Ya know the feds. The FBI."

It began to sink in.

"Shove the hard drive and floppies into this trash can." He pointed at a medium size metal can, just big enough for the computer to fit inside. "It's magnetized, so it should erase everything."

This was my introduction to hackerdom. I'd heard of cyberpunk and even read some of the fiction. But I had never equated what they wrote with real life until that moment. During the next six months, my crash course in cyber realities would alter and expand my world view.

Neuromancer

I watched as Zoxxon broke his way into the Sprint phone codes. (He explained to me that Sprint was the easiest, but you NEVER messed with AT&T. They were bad news.) Zoxxon had been phreaking for about five years. He was very, very good at it.

We used those codes to call computers all over the world. This was before the advent of the word wide web. Back then, users communicated through a series of local computers called bulletin board systems (BBS). Every web page was hosted on a computer in someone's house. You had to dial up each computer individually. No cable modems. No DSL. No surfing. You called, connected, did your business, and logged off. By some standards, I was considered minor computer user at the time and I called something like five BBS's a night. Most of these could only accommodate one user at a time. (There were exceptions, especially on the chat BBS's.) You can certainly see the advantage of free long distance.

We spent our time doing what many young men would: dialing into pornography sites. I never learned where Zoxxon got those numbers. It's not like there was a printed list of porn bulletin boards. In those days, it took forever to download pictures. (Like I said, no DSL, no cable modems.) We would design characters for role playing games, watch a movie, or even make dinner while we waited. (Talk about stereotypes: two male geeks working on games while waiting for porn to download.) I don't remember much of what we looked at it except for one particular image that is forever burned into my brain. We naively downloaded an image file called "sheep." Not to get too graphic, but the title referred to the naked man's sexual partner. A whole new meaning to "I love ewe!"

Our other favorite target was computer game companies. It was years before I paid for a computer game. We use to laugh at people who bought software. It was just that easy.

Not that I could afford to pay for any games, even if I wanted to. As usual, I was working in a bookstore at the time. I read an article a few years back that declared bookstore clerks the best-educated, worst-paid group in the entire retail industry. We are expected to know about everything from astrology to zoology and all points in between. A Gap employee only needs to know jeans and t-shirts, and not a whole lot more.

Mirrorshades Working in a bookstore does have its advantages. The employee discount is phenomenal. The customers are intelligent and diverse. And for me, I got to meet Lewis Shiner.

Meeting Shiner may have been the single most important event in my literary life. We could play six degrees of separation with my writing and editing career and most of it would end up with Lewis Shiner.

When we met, Shiner was at the heart of a cultural movement. He and a handful of other writers re-invented popular fiction which ultimately would alter the way we looked at the world. Before Shiner and his pals emerged on the scene, the futures featured in science fiction had little connection with the present. These writers showed us tomorrow as in the next sunrise, not in a thousand years. Shiner called this group the Mirrorshades; others call them the Cyberpunks.

Shiner introduced me to this exciting world of computers and punks. It was more than a collection of stories of counter-culture individuals with electronic gadgets. It was a new world vision -- a truer view of the near future. As with previous science fiction, technology was essential, but so were characters. And politics. And the future wasn't always rosy. Most of the time it was scary. As scary as the nightly news. My appreciation for post-modernism and cyberpunk evolved from my conversations with Lewis Shiner.

I would eventually meet and befriend some of these other visionaries. I watched as their ideas and Movement were co-opted by popular culture and abused by lesser writers. Now, nearly twenty years after the publication of cyberpunk's first great work, as I look around our world, both politically and culturally, it is obvious that the cyberpunks saw fifteen minutes into the future.

And what happened to Zoxxon? His fate, like so many hackers, was to go legit. (Or so he claims.) He has long since dropped the nom de plume and now designs security systems for e-commerce companies.

Copyright © 2003 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw decided to collect his columns, essays, reviews, and other things Klaw in Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century (currently available from Monkey Brains, Inc). As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business. He hopes that everyone reading this column either gets or gives a copy of Geek Confidential for the holiday season. Nothing would make Rick happier.


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