Headcrash, Bruce Bethke

Warner Aspect, 1995, 344 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60260-4

When future histories of SF will be written, some pundit will probably observe that cyberpunk died in the early nineties and that Headcrash was one of the pallbearers. When the satiric carrion-eaters start hovering in droves around a genre, you know it’s a pretty stinky corpse.

But really; a genre founded on a bleak future dominated by corporations in this era of consumer-power? A genre glorifying street-smarts, as written by patsy-faced SF geeks? A genre wetting itself upon fancy cyber-virtuality when today’s networld is clogged to a grind by porn addicts? A genre where brain damage was the way to punch out, and no one ever though about a fuse-protector? What the hell were these cyberpunk writers smoking in their spare time? Who can blame Bruce Bethke for taking on such an obvious target?

Headcrash is, simply, a satire on cyberpunk. Jack Burroughs is a nerdish compu-minion in a multi-megacorporation. By day, he slaves away at a dead-end job and fights office politics. By night, he’s MAX_KOOL and do pretty much whatever he wants in cyberspace. Unfortunately, the afore-mentioned office politics bite back and he finds himself “transitioned to Unpaid Administrative Leave” [P.117]. After being mugged by security guards in the parking lot (the bastards even cut off his tie!), Burroughs is offered a risky hacking job by a curvaceous cyber-babe…

By any rational standard, Headcrash is pretty darn funny. “Here comes Bruce Bethke. And he’s got a chainsaw” blurbs Joel Rosenberg on the back cover. He’s not kidding. Bethke savagely rips apart cyberpunk from The Shockwave Rider to Snow Crash, with a hundred-page detour on the inanity of corporate life that reads a lot like Dilbert on acid. Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton also get their dues…

The first-person narration is wonderfully funny and compulsively readable. Be careful about reading this one on the bus, unless you don’t mind everyone looking at you when you laugh aloud. Like most geek-fantasy tales, this one promises plenty of techno-gadgets and sex, though it eventually reneges on the latter. Disappointingly, many of the “surprises” are telegraphed miles in advance, with predictable results.

(Warning; mild spoilers in this paragraph) Headcrash finely upholds the cyberpunk tradition of unsatisfying endings, by pulling a huge disappointment out of its bags of tricks. (One Amazon reader called it “a GPF of an ending”) The long-awaited relationship between two characters isn’t consumed and even if the effect seems conscious, it isn’t less damning. One get the feeling that even if the protagonist ends up pretty satisfied with himself, he should -and could- have had better. (Like, er, traveling with someone else.) I will note with some interest that another recent corporate satire -Mike Judge’s film OFFICE SPACE- ends on more or less the same philosophical point.

Still, one would have to be really ungrateful not to like Headcrash —though it is entirely possible not to get it given the strongly satiric bent of the work. The dour cyberpunk genre really needed such a strongly-worded eulogy… and as far as send-offs go, this one is really quite decent. As if Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Douglas Adams, William Gibson and Scott Adams decided to celebrate the death of the genre by poking fun at each other, with Hunter S. Thompson crashing the party mid-way through.

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