Authors: Shamus Young
Tags: #artificial intelligence, #ai, #system shock
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This book happened by accident. It was supposed to be a short story. It evolved into a longer one, and eventually into a novel. How it became what it is today may be of some interest.
In 2001 I was re-playing some of my older computer games. This was partly due to nostalgia, partly to see if they still ran. Most did. A few didn't. What struck me most wasn't how primitive the graphics were, but how terrible the storytelling was. Before the days of CD-ROMs, games had a hard time building any sort of narrative. There was no room for voice acting on floppy disks. The graphics where too primitive to show facial expressions, and the characters were too simple for them to emote any other way. The only real means of storytelling was to give the player a bunch of blocky, hard-to-read text to fill in the basics. In a lot of ways it was similar to the days of silent movies, when the action would stop so the audience could read some prose explaining what was going on. In both mediums, there were many cases where the authors did indeed have a great story to tell but they didn't yet have the means to convey it in a compelling manner.
A perfect example of this is the opening movie from the 1994 classic
. It's a simple, two-minute introduction that contains a bare skeleton of a story; more of a premise than introduction. The only characters you see are the protagonist and the villains. The main character has no real identity other than what the player imagines. He eventually does a lot of interesting things, but we in the audience never get to know why. He doesn't even have a name. The various other characters in the story would simply refer to him as "Hacker".
I came up with a short story to give this character a personality, and to explain his behavior. I had no intention of writing any sort of substantial work. I set down what is now the first three chapters of the book, and posted it to my website. I expected to be more or less ignored, since the internet is lousy with fan-fiction (which is in itself mostly lousy) and I had little hope that my story would attract anyone. To my surprise, I got quite a bit of email and encouragement from both friends and strangers, which was enough to keep me going and interested to the end of chapter seven. At that point I had met my initial goal of translating the two-minute movie into prose.
While I was happy with how the short story had developed, I found the ending very unsatisfying. For anyone who wasn't familiar with the game, it wouldn't make sense to stop the story there at all. It was, of course, the
of the game. At the same time, I was getting quite a bit of email from fans who assumed I was going to keep going and translate the whole thing. At that point I wondered if I was capable of writing a book. I decided to find out.
The rest of the book was written and released a chapter at a time over the course of a year. There was a forum on this site where readers would leave comments and bug me to hurry up on the next chapter. Because it was released as a serial, I fell into a lot of habits common to serial storytelling. Notably, I had a number of cliffhanger endings. Partly this was done because it was fun to have the character in a seemingly impossible situation and to see the various posts from readers as they speculated how he might escape. I was also anxious that the long delays between chapters might cause people to lose interest and stop reading, and I wanted to make sure they came back. In the end, I don't think I needed to worry, since readership grew during the project and wasn't noticeably affected by the type of ending I'd used in the most recent chapter.
In turning the events of the actual game itself into prose, I found that I needed to take quite a bit of liberty with the story to make things interesting. In fact, it would be a stretch to say this story is based on the game. More accurately, this story is based on the same premise as the game. This earned me a bit of ire from fans of the original work, although I'm confident the book is better for it. Computer games are exciting to play, but would be hopelessly dull if converted directly into a narrative. This is particularly true for older games:
The marine blasted three more aliens. He turned around and blasted two more. He reloaded his shotgun. He went upstairs and blasted two big aliens and three little ones. He opened the door. He blasted two more. Behind the next door four more aliens (one big and three little) were waiting for him. He shot one, but then realized he'd forgotten to reload! He backed up and reloaded while the aliens bit him, lowering his health. Then he blasted them. He went through the next door and found his goal: The Red Keycard
And so on. While the above sounds dull, it's actually quite fun if you're the one doing the blasting. At any rate, adding some expository text and a little dialogue wouldn't make the above any more palatable. To make the transition from the screen to the page, most of the story had to be re-envisioned.
Since most readers were patient enough to endure the book in serial form - sometimes with weeks and months between chapters, I would say I've at least met my initial goal of creating something gripping. The fact that many of these fans have never heard of System Shock indicates that I've managed to make something that can stand on its own. I'm very happy to have seen this through to the end. In 2005, I revisited the book and did a good deal of rewriting. Lots of old spelling mistakes and typos were fixed. I'm sure many new ones were added. Much was added to the story and a little was taken away. A few years later, fans of the book moved to have it printed, which led to the version you have in your hands right now.
The long steel finger of the subway stabbed into the station. Having just come from the Undercity, its belly was full of lower-class people who were privileged enough to work in the high-class grid of glittering corporate office buildings known as Uppernet. The train brought itself to an abrupt and precise halt and then regurgitated its contents onto the empty platform. The swarm of ex-passengers flowed up the steps and dispersed into the evening glow of New Atlanta.
All except one.
Deck hung back from the crowd and watched the city drones head for whatever miserable night jobs their lives had sentenced them to. They would all be going to work for the evening. So was he.
Once the crowd cleared he headed up the street past the opulent kingdom of office space, and into the heart of Uppernet. Uppernet was a speck on the map of the great urban blanket, but its size was disproportionate to its importance. It was home to a host of powerful corporations, the seat from which they projected power throughout the technical and financial worlds. It was the nexus of money and data, the fuel and will of the business world.
The buildings were a series of near structural clones, varying mostly in their height and what corporate logo had been slapped on the front. They formed a strict grid of narrow rectangles of varying heights that looked like an immense 3d bar graph of some random input data. The strip of buildings served as a monument to a world where money was in excess and imagination was in short supply.
Deck suffered from the reverse.
He caught his reflection in the darkened windows of some nameless corporate monolith, and paused for one final glance to make sure he looked the part. He was dressed like a young executive that had just finished another marathon day behind his desk. Luckily, the look of someone who had just worked 12 hours straight was pretty much the same look as someone who had just slept all day and was still shaking off the cobwebs. His clothes were a bit wrinkled and his tie was loosened. His rig, which was usually strapped to his leg, was inside the briefcase he was carrying. He had purchased the briefcase yesterday, and then spent some time sandpapering the corners and banging it off the floor to give it a used appearance. He had let his dark hair grow in for this job. He needed to be able to pass himself off as a corporate drone, who were not allowed to have shaved heads.
He was slender and pale in a way that was to be expected from a hacker, but he wasn't soft. He had been tempered by the tough years on the streets of the Undercity. Hidden beneath the unflattering beige suit, his muscles were tight and wiry, hardened by his early pre-hacker years of too much labor and not enough food. His face was thin and bony, and looked unfamiliar to him without the narrow beard he usually maintained.
He covered the three blocks to his target as quickly as possible. He had been running a bit late before the meeting with Nescio, and that meeting had run long. His cover story was going to sound too implausible if he didn't start soon.
The TriOptimum building was not a clone like the others. It was a pillar of carved glass and steel. Covered in smooth round corners and gentle slopes, the building was like some immense sculpture cut from polished ebony stone. Up on the roof, far above Deck's view, was a complex nest of interconnected communications towers. Radio antennae, satellite dishes, pulse towers, and microwave transmitters formed an intricate web of steel and fiber optic cable.
In front, TriOptimum displayed its wealth by allotting an area fifty meters wide and five meters deep as a kind of open courtyard, complete with trees nobody cared to admire and benches nobody had time to sit on. It was a vulgar excess in a world where real estate was often measured in millions of dollars per square meter.
Deck crossed the courtyard and climbed the wide marble stairs to the broad glass doors of the lobby, which were (as he expected) locked.
The building was a fortress at night, and there was no other way in that didn't require some sort of tunneling or demolition equipment. That sort of business would be noisy, expensive, and out of his particular area of expertise. As usual, the weakest point of the building's defenses was the part that was regulated by a human. In this case, a lone security guard.
Most people imagine that hacking is a non-social activity. The picture of someone typing away at some console for hours on end creates the impression that hackers have no social skills and lack the ability to detect interpersonal subtlety. The idea is erroneous, since the greatest hackers are both con-artists and counter-security experts. The stereotype usually worked in Deck's favor so he didn't really mind.
In the world of modern cryptography, even consumer-level encryption was strong enough to require months to penetrate by pure brute force. A hacker could spend weeks probing a security network for loopholes and weaknesses, and using brute force tactics to break open its encrypted data. Many days of long, patient data surveillance and cryptological analysis would be required to gain access to even the most casually guarded network. In contrast, a ten minute phone call to a frustrated tech support jockey, intern, or clueless secretary could yield a password granting the same level of access. Hacking - true professional grade hacking, the kind you can get paid for - requires a blend of computer skills and B.S.
At the moment Deck needed some B.S. He hammered on the window.
Inside, the lone security guard looked up from the screen at the front desk and glared at Deck.
"Closed. Come back tomorrow during business hours," he yelled from his desk. His voice was muffled and distant from the other side of the bullet-proof glass.