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Was Science-Fiction Novel Germ of a Computer Virus?

Times Staff Writer

John Killan Brunner would like to invite Robert Tappan Morris to England and pastoral Somerset and dinner at his country cottage.

“I would serve him an excellent meal,” Brunner promised. “Then I would pump him about computers.”

Morris, of course, is the 22-year-old Cornell University graduate student whose recent bungling allegedly germinated an electronic virus that infected and felled 6,000 government and university computers nationwide--and who is the subject of a full-scale FBI criminal investigation.

Brunner is the 54-year-old British author who inadvertently may have put him up to it by writing “The Shockwave Rider,” a 1975 novel of one man’s tampering with national computer networks--and a book that Morris, according to his mother, read and reduced to dogears as a teen-ager.

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“The theme of the novel is that of an attempt by an individual, totally gifted, to break loose from a computerized, authoritarian government,” Brunner explained in a telephone interview from his home in the village of South Petherton.

“It wouldn’t have given him (Morris) an education. What it could have done is open his mind to the possibility that the computer society incorporates both the possible liberation of the individual . . . and his domination by central governmental forces.” Since last week and Morris’ meltdown, however, there has been nothing to suggest that the young wizard, the son of a senior computer security expert, was acting as a social saboteur or some electronic Don Quixote tilting at modem.

He has emerged more as the biggest meddler since Mary Worth.

Dedicated Craftsman

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According to investigators, computer experts at Harvard and Cornell, his teachers and friends, Morris is a shy, brilliant, dedicated computer craftsman with contrasting passions for opera, ice hockey and Vladimir Nabokov.

Currently, he is cloistered at the home of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Robert T. Morris Sr., at Arnold, Md., and refusing interviews.

He has yet to explain precisely what he was trying to do right and what exactly went wrong Wednesday when Morris was at a Cornell keyboard as the school’s computer system crashed.

A Washington Post report claims that Morris programmed his virus simply for the intellectual challenge of overcoming a problem known to afflict the system.

Giants Were Downed

But the beast got away and, before the germs cleared, the epidemic had downed computer systems at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Ames Research Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Rand Corp. and hundreds of other research facilities.

Saturday, Morris’ mother told reporters that it all began with John Brunner’s book, a science-fiction best seller that has been in print (in eight languages with Polish pending) for 13 years.

She identified “The Shockwave Rider” as her teen-age son’s primer on computer viruses and “one of the most tattered books” in young Morris’ room.

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All of which is somewhat flattering to Brunner. And Monday, this British writer who set the seed that may have incubated the talent that pullulated the bug that clobbered a nation, said his young reader may have performed a high public service.

“On balance, I would say that anybody who reminds our lords and masters that the computerized society is fragile . . . has definitely done a service to the public at large,” Brunner said. “It may not perform a service to the people who govern it . . . except as a salutary lesson.

“But I hope it (the Morris intrusion) is an awful warning to the people who have assumed blithely that they can run a modern society on the basis of secretive, computerized information.”

That was the precise ethos that Brunner’s fictional hero, Nicky Haflinger, followed as the Shockwave Rider living in the United States of the year 2000.

Escape and Survival

“As an escape, for survival . . . he adopts various ages and various personae . . . rewriting his own identity through the computer network.

“He starts out running a radical church. His cover in that is blown. So he becomes a life style consultant and a consultant to a multinational corporation. He changes because he can write his own identity in the computer net that governs the continent.

“Finally, he breaks down.”

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The morale, Brunner said, is a paradox. It says that within a computerized society “we have brand-new reasons for paranoia. . . . It is now beyond a doubt that something you wanted to keep secret is known to somebody else.”

On the other hand, he added, “the same computers that make it impossible for you to cheat on your income tax can ensure that the blood of your group is in the ambulance that picks you up from a car smash.”

His Personal Fears

Brunner, a poet and playwright and the author of more than 90 books, says the plot of “Shockwave Rider” is dear to his personal fears.

He believes that computers must be used to build ideal societies of full and free communication “to make all of us better informed than ever before.”

Yet they are being misused “to keep information privy to certain groups within our society, whether governmental or economic . . . and I will stretch this to the point where not just life and death of the individual, but life or death of the society is at stake.”

Computers, he claims, are not employees. Nor are they slaves.

“They are machines,” he said. “They will stick with what they were told to do and if you forget for one moment what you told them to do, they will then come around and remind you and kick you up the keister.”

Brunner--a computer layman who remains current by Computer Digest--has been following the diagnosis, prognosis and post-mortem of the Morris virus through stories in the British press.

He does not consider Morris a blackguard. Nor does he blame his own writings for the foul-up beyond being “a gunpowder trail . . . the snowball that created an avalanche, the pebble that became a landslide.”

Brunner’s villains “are the people who lumbered us with this (computer) mess in the first place. Most of them did it out of sheer greed crossed with ignorance.”

He places responsibility at the consoles of computer disciples “trying to prevent us from having a common share of all the knowledge available.”

Books predicting the profits and pratfalls of tomorrow have been a skill of futuristic writers since Jules Verne sent Capt. Nemo beneath the sea and H. G. Wells shoved The Time Traveller into the future.

Nor is prophesy particularly new to Brunner.

Almost two decades ago he wrote “The Sheep Look Up,” a book rooted in the chemical destruction of the environment.

“There’s an episode in which the adopted son of a childless millionaire is kidnaped and held to ransom against 20,000 water purifiers to be issued gratis to the poorer population of California,” Brunner recalled.

More recently, at a Los Angeles science-fiction convention, he was asked if his theme may not have predicted, even inspired, a subsequent event: The kidnaping of heiress Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army’s demand for food for the poor.

Said Brunner: “I gulped rather hard and I said: ‘This is steam engine time.’ ”

Steam engine time?

“Yes. When it is steam engine time, somebody is bound to invent the steam engine.”


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