I’ve had inquiries about the story that first depicted computer viruses, so here it is.
Originally published in 1970, “The Scarred Man” is by far the oldest of the stories in this collection. Not surprisingly, it is also the weakest (the bulk of the narrative being comprised of a huge block of expository dialogue). Inspired by Benford’s work on the ARPANet project during the late 60s, the “The Scarred Man” is remarkable for how accurately it describes the mechanisms and implications of computer viruses — 13 years before Dr. Fred Cohen “officially” coined the phrase.
So now the story itself, warts and all:
The Scarred Man
The cold seeped through my rough jacket. I hurried along the poorly lit mall, sensing the massive ice that lay just beyond the plastaform walls. That was when I first noticed the man with the scar.
Few patrons were out this early, nosing into the cramped shops or reading the gaudy neon adverts outside the clubs. Later the gambling would bring them in from their docked ships and the mall would fill. There would be noise and some singing, a brief flurry of fighting here and there, the calling of barkers. Dark women in filmy dresses would stroll casually for customers, making the men forget the chill of fifteen meters of snow overhead.
Thus it was that the scarred man stood out among the few idlers. He hurried, with that slight toeing in of the feet that comes of walking down the narrow passages of a commercial submarine. I would have noticed him even without the scar on his face, because there was something furtive in his movements, some hint that he felt eyes upon him.
In this place it was not at all unusual to see a scar, a tattoo, or even a flesh wound, freshly made. Ross City was a free port, the only large one in Antarctica. Privateers and smugglers filled the coves.
Ross was a straitlaced American explorer of a century or so before. I am sure he would have reddened with outrage at some of the things which went on in the city that bore his name. Submarines with silenced screws were plying a steady trade in smuggled oil, running between the outlaw offshore rigs of Australia and the hungry markets of North and South America. Ross City, tucked into a shelf jutting out from Mount Erebus, lies on a great circle between Australia and Chile. It was the natural focus of men skirting the law.
Smugglers had money — anyone dealing in scarce raw materials did, these days. They were willing to spend for a secure port to hole up in, particularly when the UN patrols were conducting their usually futile southern Pacific sweeps. The submariners lived with danger; a few close scrapes were a hazard of the trade. A scar in itself was not unusual; the man’s manner was. And beneath his obviously altered face, I knew this man.
I decided to follow him. Perhaps the chill air made me reckless. Perhaps my skiing hadn’t quite drained me of the random, unfocused energy a man acquires in a desk job. I told myself I was on holiday, bound for an evening slumming in the trader bars, and a bit of spice before serious drinking would not be out of place. I dug in my heels and went after him.
He ducked down a side passage. I turned the corner only a moment behind him. It was a short block, but my man had vanished. Into one of the shops? Several were day businesses, darkened. The others —
I glanced quickly into a dingy shrimp fry joint and didn’t see him. The next brightly lit entrance was a homosexual restaurant/bar; the signifying emblem was prominently displayed. I passed it by — my man didn’t look the sort, and he hadn’t behaved as if on the way to an assignation.
There remained one doorway, one that by chance I knew well. Voyager Tavern the blue neon proclaimed, though it was actually an alcohol and pill bar. I often put in here during an evening’s rounds, searching for atmosphere. Some dangerous men are said to frequent the place, particularly in the back rooms. I came to the Voyager for the ample drinks and relaxed mood.
I hesitated, wondering if I should dash down the street and check beyond the next corner, and then pushed through the Voyager’s door. I was right. My man stood only a few feet away, back to me. He looked slowly around the room, as if expecting to find someone he knew. He was taking his time doing it. Probably his eyes took a while to adjust to the dark, after the garish lighting outside. Mine did, too; but I knew the bar well and slipped silently around him, navigating by the low murmur of conversations more than the dim red lighting.
I chose a side booth with a good view of the room, sat and looked back at the scarred man. One of the Voyager’s girls approached him with a graphic gesture, smiling from beneath impossibly long eyelashes. He waved a hand, brusquely dismissing her, and said something in a rasping voice. She shrugged and moved off.
The scarred man nodded at someone across the room from me and I followed his look. I was surprised: he nodded at an acquaintance of mine, Nigel Roberts. Nigel was playing cards with an array of scruffy men in khaki; he raised a finger in salute and went back to studying his hand.
The man sniffed and continued to search the bar. He seemed to have an air of distance and reserve about him that was most atypical of the sort of man who became a smuggler. His face bore an expression that implied he felt himself above the customers in the bar and disliked being so distantly greeted by someone he knew.
“Hello,” a woman’s voice said. “On for an evening of pleasure?”
It was the same girl, again. I had been with her once before and found her competent but uninspired. I doubted if she remembered my face. I smiled, told her no, and she drifted away.
The movement attracted the man’s attention. He peered at my table, squinting in the poor light, holding up a hand to block out the glare of a nearby lamp.
Then he saw me. His face froze with shock.
His wiry arms tensed suddenly and he glared at me with an intense, burning rage. He took three jerky steps forward, balling his fists.
I shifted my weight forward onto my feet. I lifted myself off the booth seat about an inch. The movement would be imperceptible in this light. I was ready to move to either side, which is about all one can do when attacked in a sitting position. I breathed deeply, setting myself automatically for whatever came.
Abruptly, he stopped.
The scar ran down from below his ear to the very tip of his pointed chin. In this light it flamed a stark red. But even as I watched, it subsided and faded back into the pallor of his skin. He remained standing, weight set, frozen.
We gazed at one another for a long moment.
He flushed, lowering his eyes, and shook his head. He glanced up at me once more, as if to check and be sure I was not the man he had supposed. With a dry sound he shrugged, abruptly turned and marched into the back room of the bar.
As he moved through the pink patches of light and shadow I noticed that his scar was deeper near the throat, as though made by the blade of a knife coming from below. It was not fresh and bore the dark, mottled look of a deep cut that could not be readily corrected by a skin graft or even tissue regeneration.
I sighed and settled back. He was probably calming himself in the back booths with one of the more potent — and illegal — drugs. My heart was pounding away, fueled by the adrenaline of a moment before. I had found the experience unsettling, for all its intriguing aspects, and I finished my first drink, when it came, with one long pull.
I had come into Ross City that evening for a break from the genteel monotony of the Mount Erebus resort, where I spent most of my holiday. The tourist value of Antarctica lies in the Mount’s ski slopes and the endless plains of blinding white. The sting of the incredible cold quickens my blood. I ski there yearly, rather than on the tailored and well-known slopes in Eurasia or the Americas. Conditions there are quite pedestrian. Like all sports in this century, it has been rendered simple, safe, and dull for the ant armies who want everything packaged and free of the unexpected. Near the great population centers — a phrase that includes virtually all the planet now — there is little risk and thus no true sport. For that, you come to Antarctica.
Unfortunately, the adventurers are seldom exceptional conversationalists and I found them boring. A week at the Erebus resort was more than enough to become saturated with tales of near-accidents, broken bindings at the critical wrong moment, and slopes-I-have-known. So I took the tube down to the City, strolled through the red-light districts and ate in the ill-lit expatriate restaurants. It is perfectly safe even for a gentleman of my obvious affluence, for sportsmen and tourists are well treated. We bring in Free Dollars, which in turn create the economic margin that allows the City to remain a free port.
“Interesting one, eh?” Nigel said at my elbow.
The card game had broken up soon after the scarred man left, so Nigel came over to sit with me. I did not ask after his fortune. He didn’t volunteer information, so he had lost again.
“Yes,” I said. “For a moment he seemed to know me.”
“I noticed. Come to think, you do look something like—”
“Who? The man who gave him that scar?”
“Well, it’s a bit of a story, that scar and all.”
“Fine. Let’s have it. What are you drinking?”
When a snow frappe — laced with rum and cloves — had come for him, Nigel continued.
“He’s a restless sort, that one. Name is Sapiro. Been on the subs for quite a time now. Hard to miss him with that scar, eh? — and he’s not the type to be overlooked anyway. Always on the push, though I expect he’s slowed down a bit now. Must’ve been born ambitious.” Nigel’s Australian accent inevitably gained the upper hand once he said more than two sentences at a go. I noticed he seemed nervous, drumming fingers on the tabletop and fidgeting with his glass. Perhaps his gambling losses had unsettled him.
“The man’s done everything, at one time or another. Jobbed on an offshore rig, worked the fishing fleets, did some depth mining until the UN outlawed using amateurs in that game.” Nigel looked at me with narrowed eyes. “Had a habit of rushing things, being a touch careless. He wanted to get places fast.”
“He hasn’t come very far, for all that.”
“Ah, but you don’t know.”
Nigel hesitated, as though deciding whether to tell me. His brow crinkled with thought. Why was the decision so important? This was simply a casual conversation. But somehow, underneath, I caught a thread of tension in Nigel. Did he have some personal stake in Sapiro?
Nigel looked at me across the table, fingering a napkin. Intently, with a sudden rush, he began:
“Sapiro started as a technical type. Computers. Worked for International Computational Syndicate.”
“That is the combine with IBM as principal holder, isn’t it?”
“Right. I’m sure you know what those outfits are like — regiments of stony-eyed executives, each one with a fractional share of a secretary, living in a company suburb and hobnobbing with only company people. A closed life. Well, that’s what Sapiro got himself into and for a while he didn’t mind it. Fit right in. All he wanted to do was get to the top, and he didn’t care what he wore or where he lived or what he had to say at cocktail parties to get there.”
“But it didn’t last.”
“For a man like Sapiro ICS wasn’t enough. Back in the 1990s, you know, that was when the white collar squeeze came on. Computers had caught up. Machines could do all the simple motor function jobs and then they started making simple executive decisions, like arranging routing schedules and production plans and handling most of the complaints with automatic problem-solving circuits. That didn’t leave any room for the ordinary pencil pusher and they started to wind up in the unemployment lines.
“Well, Sapiro wasn’t playing in that low-caliber a league, but he could feel the hot breath on his neck. He guessed the machines were always going to be getting better and the rest of his life would be a tough, flat-out race to stay ahead of their capabilities.”
“He was right,” I said, sipping at my mug.
“Sure he was. Three quarters of the population can tell you that right now from firsthand experience.
“But ambition is a funny thing. Sapiro wanted his share the loot—”
“I gather that was rather a lot.”
“A fortune, nothing less. Enough to keep him above the herd for life, without him ever lifting a finger. You see, he wasn’t hot for power or status. It was money he wanted. Once he had the money he’d get some status anyway. It’s not easy to keep those two separate these days. Once you’ve got a high living standard, you get a taste for status and power, they’re the ones everybody’s after. Funny.”
“What did Sapiro do?” I said to hurry him along. Nigel had a tendency to lapse into philosophy in the middle of his stories.
“Well, he didn’t want to fight the computers. So he looked for a way to use them. By this time he was a minor executive baby-sitting for the experimental machine language division, overseeing their research and reporting back to the company. He had a brother-in-law in the same lab, a mathematican. They were good friends — Sapiro was married to the researcher’s sister — but they didn’t see much of each other in an official capacity.
“One evening they had the brother-in-law over to dinner and were sitting around talking shop. Everybody likes to make fun of computers, you know, and they were making jokes about them, figuring up schemes to make them break down and all that.”
“Everybody is afraid of them,” I said.
“Yes, I suppose that’s it. Fear. They were tossing around ideas and having a good time when the brother-in-law — his name was Garner — thought up a new one. They kept kicking it around, getting a few laughs out of it, when they both suddenly realized that it would really work. There weren’t any holes in it, as there were in most computer stories.”
“This was a new vulnerability the designers had overlooked?” I said.
“Not exactly. The new machines ICS was putting together had a way they could be rigged, and no one could tell that one little extra circuit had been built in. It never functioned in any other capacity, except the way Garner wanted it to.
“It worked like this. You start with your own computer, one of the new models. Give it a program to execute. But instead of doing the job immediately, the machine waits awhile and then, in the middle of somebody else’s calculation, takes five or ten seconds out to do your work. You know what a random number generator is?”
“Well . . . it’s some sort of program, isn’t it? It produces a number at random and there is no way to tell what the next one will be. The first one might be a 6, next a 47, then a 13. But there is no way to tell what the next one will be.”
“That’s it. The time interval before your computer did your job would be random, so that the guy whose program came ten minutes after ours was supposedly done didn’t always find five or ten seconds missing. That made the trouble hard to trace, even if the other guy noticed he was losing a few seconds.
“But the kicker in all this is that Garner had found a way to charge those seconds to the account that was running at the time.”
“Oh, I see. That gave him free running time at someone else’s expense. Very clever.”
“Yes, but not quite clever enough. After all, he and Sapiro had access to only one or two computers. If they stole lots of time from the other users — and what would they do with it, anyway? — it would be noticed.”
“Could they not sell the computer time to some other company?”
“Of course. But they couldn’t steal much. It wouldn’t be profitable enough to run the risk.”
“I imagine the risk would be considerable, as well.”
“Quite. You know as well as I what the cartels are doing these days. It was even tougher then, ICS owned Sapiro and Garner. As long as they were employed there the company could arrange their ‘disappearance’ and few would be the wiser. They lived in a company town that looked the other way when company goons dispensed justice. No, the risk wasn’t worth it. The scope would have to be a lot bigger — and the profits — before they could afford to make the gamble.
“Garner was the better technician but Sapiro knew the way management’s mind worked. Any fool knew computer time was worth money. The corporations would take pains to be sure no one could make away with sizable chunks of it, chunks large enough to perform a respectable calculation. So Sapiro figured he’d do just the reverse of what ICS expected.”
“Here’s what he did. He had to have Garner’s help, of course, in hiding the initial program inside a complicated subroutine, so even a careful search wouldn’t find it. That was Garner’s only contribution, and a good thing, too, because he wasn’t a man who could deal with people. He knew nothing of character, couldn’t tell a thief from a duke. Or so Sapiro thought.”
“Then Sapiro—” I said. The only way to get Nigel to hold on the subject was to threaten to interrupt, a theory which was quickly verified when he raised his voice a decibel and plunged on:
“The program he logged in instructed the computer to dial a seven digit telephone number at random. Now, most phones are operated by people. But quite a few belong to computers and are used to transfer information and programming instrucions to other computers. Whenever a computer picks up the receiver — metaphorically, I mean — there’s a special signal that says it’s a computer, not a human. Another computer can recognize the signal, see.
“Sapiro’s computer just kept dialing at random, hanging up on humans, until it got a fellow computer of the same type as itself. Then it would send a signal that said in effect, ‘Do this job and charge it to the charge number you were using when I called.’ And then it would transmit the same program Sapiro tad programmed into it.”
“So that—” I said.
“Right on. The second computer would turn around and start calling at random intervals, trying to find another machine. Eventually it would.”
“I see, much like the windup toy game.”
“When I was a boy we used to wonder about those windup dummies one could buy. Suppose you got a bunch and fixed them so they would just walk to the next dummy and wind him up with the little screw on the back. I remember once thinking that I could mobilize an entire windup toy army that way.”
“Didn’t work though, did it?”
“No.” I smiled wryly. “I’m told the trouble lies in the energy. No dummy would have the power to wind up another to quite the same strength, so they would all run down pretty soon.”
“Yup, that’s it. Only with Sapiro the money to pay for the few seconds of computer time was coming out of all the accounts available to the computer, completely randomly. He was using somebody else’s energy.”
“I still don’t see—”
“As soon as the program was in the machine and working, he and Garner quit. Those were tough days, and ICS didn’t shed any tears to see them go. Their friends thought they were crazy for throwing up good jobs.”
“How did they live?”
“Opened a computer consultant firm. Got no business, of course, but they were biding their time. All the while that one computer at ICS was dialing away, making a call about every twenty minutes. Pretty soon it had to find another soulmate then there’d be two dialing.
“Garner calculated it would take five months for half the ICS computers in North America to be reached. But before that, programmers began to notice longer running times for standard jobs they’d set up, and people started to worry. The Sapiro program was buried deep and it was random, so everybody figured the trouble was a basic fault of the ICS computer. A random symptom is always evidence that the machine failing, they said.”
“Enter, Sapiro and Garner, Consultants,” I said.
“You got it. They volunteered to find the trouble for free the first time. Garner was smart enough to hide what he was doing, and in an hour or so they straightened out the machine. Said they had a new method and couldn’t reveal it. All they’d done was countermand the program that had been telephoned into, the machine.
“That got them all the publicity they needed. They fixed a lot of ICS computers for incredible fees, only they did it through a cover agency so ICS wouldn’t realize who they were.
“It worked fine because even after they’d debugged a machine, sometime or other another computer that hadn’t been fixed would call up and transmit the orders again. They never ran out of customers.
“Sapiro got rich and so did Garner, only Garner never seemed to show it. He didn’t buy anything new or take his wife to Luna for a vacation. Sapiro figured it was just Garner’s shyness. He didn’t imagine his partner was saving it all up someplace where he could run when the time came. Sapiro didn’t have much time to think about it anyway because he was working eighteen hour days, with assistants to do fake work as a blind. The flunkies would go in, fiddle with the machine the way Sapiro had told them, and then Sapiro would pop in, dump the program — he called it VIRUS — and take off. The people who owned the machine never suspected anything because it looked like a complicated process; all those assistants were there for hours.
“Sapiro and Garner just flew around the hemisphere, selling their cure-all — Sapiro called it VACCINE — and making money.
“Then one night the ICS goons came after him. They weren’t out for fun, either. They tried a sonic rifle at short range and the only thing that waved Sapiro was an accident — his copter fell into a lake, where the ICS goons couldn’t reach him to finish him off. He floated on a seat cushion and kept his head low while they searched from shore. It was late fall and the water was leaching the warmth out of him. He waited as long as he could but the ICS agents didn’t leave the shoreline — they were just making sure.
“He started paddling. It was hard to make any time without splashing and attracting attention but the movement kept him warm a little longer — just enough to get him to the other end of the lake. It wasn’t a lake, actually, but a reservoir. Sapiro heard a rushing of water and thought it was the edge of the falls. He tried to swim away but by that time he was too weak. He went over.
“But it wasn’t the falls. It was an overflow spot that fell about ten feet and then swirled away, taking him with it. The current carried him a half mile beyond the edge of the park area. He staggered up to the street, found a cab and used his credit cards to get to a hotel.”
“He didn’t go home?”
“No point. ICS had the house, his wife, everything. He checked by phone and found out several interesting things. That Garner hadn’t come to work that day. That Garner’s home numbers didn’t answer. That his office was surrounded by ICS men.
“It took him three days to find Garner. He’d holed up somewhere and thought he was safe, but Sapiro bought off a few people and tracked him.
“Garner had sold out to ICS, of course. The deal was that ICS wouldn’t touch him after he handed over the information, but that didn’t stick for Sapiro. When ICS saw what fools they’d been, they went for blood and Sapiro was the nearest throat handy. They’d have killed Garner, too, if they’d known where he was.
“So after Sapiro took every Free Dollar Garner had — he was carrying it in solid cash, some jewelry and universal bank drafts, to be sure ICS didn’t get it — he called ICS and told them where Garner was. He’d left Garner boarded in and tied up.”
“Then it all resolved satisfactorily,” I said. “He got money and his freedom.”
“Freedom, yes. Money, no. Sapiro ran for Australia and beat it into the bush country. ICS never tracked him but they got some of the cash by good luck, and Sapiro had to spend rest of it to keep them off his tail. He had a year or two of good living but then it was gone. Even while he was spending it there was not much fun to it. ICS was still looking for him, and by coincidence an agent ran into him in Sydney. Sapiro got the worst of the fight but he smashed the fellow’s head when they both fell over a railing — he landed on top.
“That convinced him to lie low. It was about time he had to anyway because the money was almost gone. He got onto the offshore rigs and then into smuggling because it paid better. He’s still doing it. He can’t forget that he was once a big operator, though, and he looks down his nose a bit at the people he must associate with.”
“Is that why he seemed a bit cold and reserved when came in here?” I asked.
“Probably. He isn’t a bad sort and he does tell a good joke. He would’ve come in and been sociable if he hadn’t seen you.”
“He showed me some pictures from the ICS days once. One of them was of Garner. There’s a fair resemblance between you two. Garner’s hair was darker, but then it might have lightened with age.”
“But ICS took care of him,” I said.
“Maybe. Sapiro left him for ICS, but Garner might have gotten away or even talked his way out of it. Improbable, I’ll grant, but it could have turned out that way.
“I don’t think Sapiro is afraid of Garner at all, but you’ll admit it must have been a shock for him to think he saw his old partner like that.”
“Yes,” I said, “I can well understand it. He gave me rather a start just by glaring at me.”
“Good job he realized his mistake. Might have—”
“But look,” I said. I was becoming impatient. “You said you would tell me about that scar. It’s an awful thing, ought to have something done about it. How did Sapiro get it? When the copter crashed, or in the fight with the ICS man?”
“Ah yes, that. He’s fond of the scar, you know. Wouldn’t have it changed for anything, says it makes him look dashing. Stupid.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why? A man can allow himself a few eccentricities.”
“Not a man like Sapiro. ICS can’t afford to have someone still in circulation, living proof that ICS can be beaten. It might give some other ambitious chap an idea or two.”
“But it’s been years!” I said. “Surely—”
“The only sure thing is that ICS is big and Sapiro, however clever, is small. That, and his mouth is too large. He has told his story too many times, over too many drinks.”
“The same way you’re telling me now.”
Nigel smiled and the lines in his face deepened in the dim light of the bar. “It doesn’t matter now. Sapiro told his little tale to a man who needed money. A man who knew who to call at ICS.”
I hesitated for a moment. I glanced toward the back room of the bar. A haze of pungent marijuana smoke was drifting lazily through the beaded curtain that shielded the back. Sapiro was probably quite far gone now, unable to react quickly.
“A man who gambles, you mean,” I said slowly. “A man who fancies himself a shrewd hand at cards, but somehow cannot manage to get the best of the gaming tables here in Ross City and simply won’t stay away from them.”
Nigel regarded me coldly, unmoving. “Pipe dreams,” he said, too casually.
“But our man still feels guilty about it, doesn’t he? The old code about ratting out on friends — doesn’t vanish so easily as you thought? So while you’re waiting for the finish you tell an acquaintance about Sapiro, maybe thinking I will agree that he is a dishonest, stupid man who might as well be converted in cash for poor Nigel, the overdrawn gambler?”
“There’s nothing for it, you know,” he said grimly. “The scar’s given him away back there. It wasn’t hard to describe to them. By the time you could reach the curtain—”
Through the strands of colored beads, but somehow as though from far away, there came a faint scream. It had an odd bubbling edge to it, as if something was happening to the man’s throat. Abruptly it became something else, something far worse, and suddenly ended.
The job was perfectly done. The terrible sound had never risen above the hum of conversation in the front room, never disturbed the layered smoke and drowsy mood. No head but mine had turned.
Nigel was looking at me smugly; unconsciously, I had jumped to my feet. His face was losing its lines of strain.
“Finish your drink?” he said. “There’s nothing more to do. What can any of us do, eh? Eh?”
I nodded and sank back into my seat. It was done. ICS had, their man at last; they’d been satisfied.
I was free.
Also from Worlds Vast and Various, some afternotes:
My friend Robert Silverberg once defined critics as those who, after the battle has been fought, come to the battlefield and shoot the wounded.
I’ve never felt that strongly about critics, but I sometimes do feel that abstractly, while looking backward at my own work. Often I wonder who exactly produced this fiction, what mind set obliquely to mine? Sometimes I can only dimly remember what was afoot in that mind when the labors were in progress.
Such tensions working through the lives of scientists, as they move from their day jobs of heady arabesques into their after-hours domestic swarm, are little remarked in literature. Yet they are powerful, reminding us that David Hume enjoined, “Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy be still a man.”
Throughout, I have resisted the temptation to touch up these tales. I owe that earlier mind a clear passage to the present, its own voice. The only story in here from my early period, written in 1969, I include for two reasons: to show how badly one can write and still get a start, and to own up to one of the darker episodes in my life.
I was trying to learn to write in those days, while a postdoctoral fellow at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore, California. I programmed computers often (in Fortran, a language that survives as a dinosaur from that era) in pursuit of early simulations of plasma phenomena. Though to this day I primarily use analytical mathematics, I found computers useful. I also used the laboratory’s crude communications system that ran over the big, central computers we all worshiped then. One could either write a message by punching holes in cards, or by typing on a terminal connected to someone elsewhere in the lab. There was a pernicious problem when programs got sent around for use: “bad code” that arose when researchers included (maybe accidentally) pieces of programming that threw things awry.
One day I was struck by the thought that one might do so intentionally, making a program that deliberately made copies of itself elsewhere. The biological analogy was obvious; evolution would favor such code, especially if it was designed to use clever methods of hiding itself and using others’ energy (computing time) to further its own genetic ends.
So I wrote some simple code and sent it along in my next transmission. Just a few lines in Fortran told the computer to attach these lines to programs being transmitted to a certain terminal. Soon enough – just a few hours – the code popped up in other programs, and started propagating. By the next day it was in a lot of otherwise unrelated code, and I called a halt to matters by sending a message alerting people to the offending lines.
I made a point with the mavens of the Main Computer: this could be done with considerably more malevolent motivations. In 1969, I got a chance to take part in the ARPANet (Advanced Research Projects Administration) just beginning to link the University of California campuses and the national laboratories such as Livermore and Los Alamos.
In messages sent to Los Alamos, I did the same trick. There was nothing in the system to stop such shenanigans. The ARPANet expanded to become the Net, then the World Wide Web. We tend to forget it was started as a method to link laboratories, and to ensure that communications did not break down in the event of war, and was all funded by the Department of Defense.
I thought it inevitable that such ideas work themselves out in the larger world. I wrote “The Scarred Man” to trace out these ideas, choosing to think commercially: Could someone make a buck out of this? Soon enough I had devised a “virus” that could be cured with a program called Vaccine. I was much impressed with the style of W. Somerset Maugham in those days, a writer now largely and unjustly dropped from sight. I used his characteristic mannerism to frame the story, a narrator from outside listening to a tale of woe, with a twist at the end.
“The Scarred Man” appeared in the May 1970 issue of Venture and mercifully dropped from sight. But better writers like John Brunner and David Gerrold picked up on the basic idea and used it in novels a few years later. The notion spread. I have heard that some early copycat viruses began appearing in the ARPANet around 1974, though not virulent forms. By the late 1970s professor Ken Adelman at the University of Southern California had the same idea and claimed it for his own, warning that viruses could be very damaging. Shortly after, they became so.
I had no desire to encourage the kind of behavior I depicted in the story. The tale abounds in wrong guesses about its future, which is pretty much now. We weren’t that desperate for oil in the 1990s, didn’t drill for it and run embargoes using submarines, for example – but the rather stiff frame of the action does still contain the kernel idea.
I avoided “credit” for this idea for a long time, but gradually realized that it was inevitable, in fact fairly obvious. It is some solace, I suppose, that last year’s number 2 seller software in virus protection was a neat little program named Vaccine. The idea came into different currency at the hands of the renowned British biologist Richard Dawkins, who invented the term “memes” to describe cultural notions that catch on and propagate through human cultural mechanisms. Ranging from pop songs you can’t get out of your head all the way up to the Catholic Church, memes express how cultural evolution can occur so quickly, as old memes give way to voracious new ones.
This use of biological analogy now proceeds apace. We should expect more such imports into the general culture as we proceed into the next Biological Century.
I suppose there was some money to be made from this virus idea, if remorselessly pursued, even back in the early 1970s. I thought about these, though my heart was not in it. (Perhaps I can claim, like Arthur C. Clarke, that I, too, lost a billion dollars in my spare time.)
Computer viruses are a form of antisocial behavior, one I did not want to encourage in the slightest. Nowadays there are logic bombs, sleeper mines, nasty scrub-everything viruses of robust ability, and what I term “datavores” which eat files with relish.
Not a legacy I wanted to claim. Yet it is an interesting case in the history of the constant interaction between science, technology, and science fiction. Inevitably somebody was going to invent computer viruses; the idea requires only a simple biological analogy. Once it escaped into the general culture, there was no way back. The manufacturers of spray-paint cans probably feel the same way. …
So what is it like, to come upon the battlefield of short stories and inspect the survivors? I have rather enjoyed revisiting these. In part they are to me forms of concealed autobiography, for I still can recall the heat of their creation. For others, I hope they provide some amusement to inspecting, critical minds, well-armed against viruses and memes alike.