The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Suzy Dellinger said absently, “You know, I always wondered what democracy might smell like. Finally I detect it in the air.”

“Curious that it should arrive in the form of electronic government,” Sweetwater murmured.

Brad Compton glanced at her. “Not really, when you think about the history of liberty. It’s the story of how principle has gradually been elevated above the whim of tyrants. When the law was defined as more powerful than the king, that was one great breakthrough. Now we’ve come to another milestone. We’re giving power to more people than have ever before enjoyed it, and—”

“And it makes me feel,” Nick interrupted, “the way they must have felt when they started the first nuclear chain reaction. Will there still be a world in the morning?” There was a short pause, silent but for the hum of the electrical equipment, as they contemplated the continental pre-empt scheduled for the day after tomorrow.

From 0700 local until 1900 every veephone on the continent would display, over and over, two propositions, accompanied by a spoken version for the benefit of the illiterate. Most would be in English, but some would be in Spanish, some in Amerind languages, some in Chinese… the proportions being based on the latest continental census. After each repetition would follow a pause, during which any adult could punch into the phone his or her code, followed by a “yes” or a “no.” And according to the verdict, the computers of the continent would respond.

Proposition #1 concerned the elimination of all but voluntary poverty.

Proposition #2 — “Here it comes,” Nick said, scanning the columns of figures and code groups appearing on his screen. “Seems to be pretty well finalized. Categorizes occupations on three axes. One: necessary special training, or uncommon talent in lieu—that’s to cover people with exceptional creative gifts like musicians or artists. Two: drawbacks like unpredictable hours and dirty working conditions. Three: social indispensability.”

Brad slapped his thigh. “What a monument to Claes College!”

“Mm-hm. There’ll be a footnote on every single printout explaining that if we’d paid attention to what the Claes group discovered by working among the Bay Quake refugees this could have been settled a generation back… Hmm! Yes, I think this balances out very nicely. For instance, a doctor will score high on special training and social importance too, but he can only get into the top pay bracket if he accepts responsibility for helping emergency cases, instead of keeping fixed office hours. That puts him high on all three scales. And a garbage collector, though rating low on special training, will do well on scales two and three. All public servants like police and firemen will automatically score high on scale three and most on scale two as well, and—oh, yes. I like the look of it. Particularly since a lot of parasites who were at the top in the old days will now pay tax at ninety percent because they score zero on all three axes.”

“Zero?” someone demanded in disbelief.

“Why not? People in advertising, for example.”

The questioner’s eyebrows rose. “Never thought of that before. But it figures.”

“Think they’ll stand for it?” Kate said nervously, patting Bagheera who lay at her side. Since meeting Natty Bumppo he had refused to be left out of sight of her, although he and the dog had exhibited mutual tolerance, as favorable a reaction as might have been hoped for.

“Their choice is to close down the net,” Nick said, and snapped his fingers.

“Thereby breaking their own necks. Suzy, you look worried.”

The mayor nodded. “Even if they don’t deliberately blow the net when they find they can’t interfere with our pre-empt, to make some kind of grand suicidal gesture… there’s another and more disturbing question.”


“Are people scared into their right minds yet?” The following silence was broken by the soft buzz of an incoming call. Kate switched it to her board and put on her phones.

Seconds later she uttered a loud gasp, and all heads turned to her.

Peeling off her phones again, she spun her chair, her cheeks as pale as paper and her eyes wide with fear.

“It can’t be true! It simply can’t be true! My God, it’s already twenty past one—the plane must have taken off!”

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