Ten Foot Pole

One benefit of a writing career used to be that we were too puny a minority to be spam targets. No offers of amazing drugs that greatly enlarge your huge throbbing royalty statements and make your literary agent scream hoarsely for more. No Nigerian-style opportunities to get rich (after paying a few routine bribes and handling charges) by acquiring the 500,000 Harry Potter first editions stashed in a secret bunker by Saddam Hussein.

It's started now, with email to me personally from "a Marketing Specialist of Bookwhirl.com" – a name chosen to sound like the established Bookworld.com search engine when cold-calling. His irresistible offer: "I came across your book entitled, 'What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction'. We are interested to promote it and we'd like to help post your book up to 1,000 highly traffic websites and increase online book exposure." All this for mere undisclosed sums of money!

It wasn't so much the slightly fractured English ("interested to" ... "highly traffic") that caught my eye, as the fact that I didn't write that book. It's a collection of SF criticism by Paul Kincaid, which happens to have a Langford introduction. Marketing specialists are supposed to notice these subtleties. When Bookwhirl cold-called the SFSite.com comics reviewer, their sales expert was similarly confused: "The X-Men is not your book?"

As usual, a little research online revealed that others had already done lots of such research. Bookwhirl reps have pestered every author whose email or phone number they can trace, from famous Piers Anthony down to lowlifes like me. Claiming to be based in Wisconsin or sometimes Iowa, they're actually a Philippines outfit that fondly hopes naive authors will pay them to spam people. For $3499 they'll ensure your name is mud by annoying a claimed 10,000,000 recipients with ill-written plugs for your work. Sounds like a great way to ruin a career.

Thanks to the net, dodgy promoters, publishers and agents can be checked at sites like Absolutewrite.com and SFWA's Writer Beware (www.sfwa.org/Beware). It's always useful to share information ... which brings me via an incredibly contrived transition to the big question that no-one has yet asked the SFXperts panel: "Did any SF writer predict the great Wikileaks scandal?"

Well, John Brunner came amazingly close in 1975 with his novel The Shockwave Rider. This features an early SF vision of the Internet, and a hacker hero who – more for having a bad attitude than for any actual crime – is captured by a US government agency, held without trial in a secret place and savagely interrogated. Innocents like his girlfriend get the same treatment, with no chance of legal representation or due process. Cruelly unfair, of course: such things could never happen in law-abiding America.

When loose again, our hacker's revenge on the system that gave him such a bad time is to unleash a net "worm" that ransacks secure databanks and publicly reports everything the public ought to know. Corporate scams, political corruption, dubious food ingredients, criminal sources of income, fake medical treatments, and much more. All this was 35 years before the current Wikileaks fuss began.

Of course The Shockwave Rider – and the even earlier story in which data also leaks uncontrollably, Murray Leinster's 1946 "A Logic Named Joe" – couldn't get everything right. Neither predicted that the utopian free flow of information on the net would consist mainly of spam, spam, spam, phishing bots and spam.

David Langford wishes his own emails didn't get spam-blocked for mentioning Philip K Dick, without even promising to greatly enlarge him.

Later: Having drafted this in December 2010, I was slightly disconcerted to find that the Wikileaks/Shockwave Rider point (admittedly fairly obvious to any sf reader) had already been made in an 8 December piece in the Daily Telegraph. But I consoled myself with the fact that I'd got in earlier with a 2 December comment on the identical subject at Making Light.