Clifford Hicks on Amazon remarks: ‘Three works define cyberpunk as a genre -- William Gibson's "Neuromancer," Bruce Sterling's "The Artificial Kid" and Walter Jon Williams' "Hardwired."’ While I would argue the usage of “define” (where is Pat Cadigan’s Mindplayers, or the Mirrorshades anthology, or John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider, or James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” or…), there’s no denying the three novels capture the aesthetic of cyberpunk. Neuromancer certainly one of the most read and influential science fiction novels of all time, I have my doubts, however, people are as aware of Sterling or William’s contributions. And undeservingly so.
Indeed one of the original texts, Hardwired (1986) is classic cyberpunk. Emphasis on ‘hard,’ Williams creates a gritty, near-future US scenario where orbital corporations lord their power, technology and info are that power, people have sockets implanted into their bodies to interface with data networks, the country is balkanized and left largely to waste, and the masses scrape by however they can, legally or illegally. Cowboy is a former fighter pilot turned smuggler. Owner of an armored hovercraft, he transports highly valuable orbital products—pharmaceuticals, circuit boards, and crystal chips—through gauntlets of privateer armies, militias, and other forces looking to “collect taxes” on cross-country delivery runs from the Rockies to the east coast. His conscience regarding the work generally clear, one rough trip, however, makes him rethink his involvement with the orbitals. Sarah is a 6’-3” bodyguard working in the Florida freezone. Caught at a career crossroads, running into Cowboy at the medical facility where her injured brother is convalescing pushes her in a definite direction, however. Little do the pair know but that direction means changes affecting a much broader range of people than just the two of them.
From hovercrafts to people living inside virtual reality, readers of William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy will find themselves in familiar territory with Hardwired. Stylized to a sleek, hard-knuckled glint, Williams’ characters are bruising and moody, yet part of the future. Many have data jacks built into their skulls, arms, or legs, and have undergone plastic surgery of some kind—the body corporeal having lost all sacredness. Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll their social escapes, money has migrated to the orbital oligarchs leaving the common man to make what he can of what little there is. Data tantamount to power, corporations have replaced governments: political interests have become wholly commercial, and law enforcement is in place to ensure the money flows smoothly, protection of citizen’s rights an afterthought.
Very important to note, however, is that Hardwired is not imitation Gibson. Despite the common aesthetic, the storyline is comparatively unique. While nicely relaying the tactility and effects of tech, Neuromancer’s main thematic aim is arguably the loss of personal identity in a world where technology renders it reproducible and malleable. Hardwired is more a story of social rebellion—the little guy taking on the big-wigs who use power and influence for their own benefit. This line reducing the novel to simpler terms than it actually is, Williams does a good job of using subtle rather than overt details and events to motivate the plot. What all too easily could have descended into cheesy one-liners in Hollywood action mode is instead rendered mature by Williams’ approach, starting with the characters. Cowboy, Sarah, and the others remain abstract from realism, but it’s a distance quickly bridged by the palpability of setting and scene, as well as the human reaction to the situations they face. Painted in finer detail than the cover would indicate, they form nuanced touchstones to a story whose rebellion is familiar but which appears more given the strong human focus, not to mention atypical (read: cyberpunk) mode.
In the end, Hardwired is a mean, tough novel that distills the cyberpunk aesthetic into a gritty mix of armored hovercraft wars, net running, data scams, corrupt politics, and outright rebellion that validates the ‘punk’ in ‘cyberpunk.’ Williams openly attributes much of Hardwired’s setting to Roger Zelzany’s post-apocalyptic novel Damnation Alley. No mutant bugs or epic tornadoes, Cowboy’s cross-country smuggling trips nevertheless take him through a wasteland of abandoned farms and and local governments regressed into a near-future wild-west scenario. Whether or not it is top-three most essential cyberpunk novels of all time is up to personal preference. But there is no denying the novel is cyberpunk to its core.