Those of you who had the opportunity to read our interview with Mike Pondsmith, already know that one of the major inspirations for the classic cyberpunk game, Cyberpunk 2020, was the novel Hardwired. And this was for good reason. Outside of Neuromancer this is one of the best examples of classic cyberpunk. Hard-edged outlaws living in an oppressed world, just trying to survive and maybe do a little good along the way. Walter Jon Williams, the author of Hardwired, was even one of the original game testers for Cyberpunk 2020. Many of his characters helped to further cement the archetypes that we have come to know in cyberpunk, such as the Razor Girl, Fixer, and Rigger, all by different names of course. In Hardwired they were Mud Girls, Thirdmen, and Deltajocks.
The plot of this excellent novel also hit the spot, bringing excellent world building for our characters to live in and a story that had me hooked from chapter two. Cowboy (note that he is not a console cowboy) is a Deltajock, who runs goods across state lines in a fragmented United States, teams up with Sarah, a mud girl (a woman who lives on Earth in disadvantaged conditions rather than on the Orbitals) who is trying to make a better life for her drug and youth obsessed brother. Together, Cowboy and Sarah embark on a quest to discover who is trying to kill them, who is trying to subvert the Jockeys, and who is making a power play for the Earth. All of this is set against the backdrop of the Rock War, which ended a conflict between orbital colonies and Earth with the Orbitals (read orbital based mega-corporations) dropping small asteroids on major cities, causing the fragmentation of the US government.
I had a number of biases going into this novel. First, a friend brought to my attention the similarities the novel shares with Neuromancer, claiming that it is a Neuromancer clone. I don’t think that is true, although they do share many of the same tropes. Hardwired is a much more politically charged novel than Neuromancer was. One of the major themes of the story is a rebellion against the Orbitals which have seized power through the Rock War. Second, knowing that the novel was a heavy inspiration for Cyberpunk 2020 I had my eye out for the inspirations, I was not disappointed. If you are familiar at all with the game, your will see tons of parallels. Third, Hardwired fulfilled a desire I have held since reading The Glass Hammer by K. W. Jeter. The Glass Hammer is an excellent cyberpunk satire on the effects of media and religion (sometimes the same thing) on our culture. The protagonist of that story named Schuyler, however, was a Deltajock (called a Sprinter in The Glass Hammer) much like Cowboy in Hardwired. The difference is we never really get to see Schuyler make a run across lines to deliver his goods. Hardwired is full of these scenes, though, so now I feel complete.
Another similarity between Neuromancer and Hardwired, that is worth mentioning, is each story’s use of human personalities with the Net (Hardwired)/Matrix (Neuromancer). In Neuromancer we have Dixie Flatline and in Hardwired we have Reno. Dixie is a “saved consciousness” which has been saved to ROM, whereas Reno is a Crystaljock (aka Hacker or Decker), who has his consciousness trapped in the Net when his body dies. Both Dixie and Reno provide hacking services and aid to the protagonists of their respective novel, but Reno plays a larger role since he is the only Crystaljock named that is working with Cowboy and Sarah.
The first chapter of Hardwired does drag on for a bit, laying down the setting of the world. It is a bit tiring and I had to slog through it. It was full of description, exposition, and little action. Then cue chapter two. The second chapter of Hardwired could have been a book unto itself. It follows Sarah as she does the last job she needs to, an assassination, in order to accrue enough money to buy two tickets to the Orbital colonies. One for her and one for her brother Daud. When the job is over, she returns to find her brother abused by a client (he is a male prostitute). She puts him to bed in her bed to sleep for the night, only to have her employers blow up the bedroom with a rocket and with Daud inside, instead of her. She spends the money that she had saved to change their lives to save Daud’s life. I read the scene with the bedroom bombing, and I nearly cried out. It was one of the most powerful scenes I have read in a book, and it was only chapter two! I don’t feel bad for spoiling this scene because there are plenty of other excellent scenes to come including an ending that I didn’t see coming, although it is foreshadowed wonderfully. Chapter two also introduced my favorite character in the book, The Weasel. The Weasel is an autonomous cybernetic snake that is implanted beneath Sarah’s tongue. When it deploys it attacks her target, and the deployment causes her throat to close up as it tears out the throat of her victim. Such a chilling augmentation, it gives me goosebumps in the best way possible.
Drawing further parallels with Neuromancer, the relationship with Cowboy and Sarah mirrors that of Case and Molly. And it isn’t just because everyone is wearing mirrorshades. Case and Molly have sexual encounters that bring them closer, even to some semblance of love. This relationship isn’t really important to the story, though, although I’m not saying I didn’t like it. Especially, if you’ve also read Johnny Mnemonic, a short story collected in Burning Chrome; you know why she left at the end. Cowboy and Sarah are different. Their relationship takes center stage of the story, although the dynamic is very similar because Cowboy and Sarah have to maintain a professional relationship as well as a romantic one. The reason it is different is because we have both Cowboy’s and Sarah’s viewpoints in the story, whereas in Neuromancer we have only Case’s. This means that we can see the depths of the relationship from multiple perspectives and thus the complexities of the relationship.
Hardwired came out of the first wave of cyberpunk. Although, Walter Jon Williams was not one of the original cyberpunks (often referred to as the Mirrorshades Group) he has definitely had a significant influence on the cyberpunk genre in his own right. Hardwired didn’t really push any boundaries in the genre, which is part of what makes it so classically cyberpunk, the sequel did. Voice of the Whirlwind is set years in the future of Hardwired, where the Orbitals have ventured further out into space and encountered aliens. This pushed the genre out into space alongside works like Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix. Both stories definitely maintain the high tech, low life mentality of cyberpunk. Don’t let anyone tell you cyberpunk can only be set on Earth or even only in the very near future. It is worth mention that there is also a novella called Solip:System which is set between Hardwired and Voice of the Whirlwind.
I highly recommend Hardwired to anyone. If you are already a cyberpunk fan, it is an excellent partner to Neuromancer. If you aren’t you probably will be after reading this book. Barring the first chapter, the novel has a good pace and will keep you engrossed with action, political intrigue, and romance. “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” as they say.
You can get a copy of Hardwired here.
Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams – 10/10
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