The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Freeman shook his head, his eyes watchful.

“But there has been. I’m sure of it. He said something about the way you regard me. Said he felt scared.”

“Yes, that’s so. You had a visitor, who sat in on one day’s interrogation, and he did say that. But he doesn’t work at Tarnover.”

“The place where you take the improbable for granted.”

“So to speak.”

“I see. I’m reminded of one of my favorite funny stories when I was a kid. I haven’t told it in years. With luck it’ll have gone far enough out of style not to bore you. Seems that an oil company, back in—oh—the thirties of last century would fit, wanted to impress a sheikh. So they laid on a plane when they were few and far between in that part of the world.”

“And when he was at ten thousand feet, perfectly calm and collected, they said, ‘Aren’t you impressed?’ And the sheikh said, ‘You mean it’s not supposed to do this?’ Yes, I know the story. I learned it from your dossier.”

There was a short pause full of veiled tension. Eventually Freeman said, “What convinced you that you were in hell?”

After the legs race, the arms race; after the arms race…

Angus Porter’s epigram was not just a slick crack to be over-quoted at parties.

But few people realized how literally true the bon mot had become.

At Tarnover, at Crediton Hill, at some hole in the Rockies he had never managed to identify beyond the code name “Electric Skillet,” and at other places scattered from Oregon to Louisiana, there were secret centers with a special task. They were dedicated to exploiting genius. Their ancestry could be traced back to the primitive “think tanks” of the mid-twentieth century, but only in the sense that a solid-state computer was descended from Hollerith’s punched-card analyzer.

Every superpower, and a great many second- and third-rank nations, had similar centers. The brain race had been running for decades, and some countries had entered it with a head start. (The pun was popular, and forgivable.) In Russia, for example, great publicity had long attended the Mathematical Olympiads, and it was a signal honor to be allowed to study at Akadiemgorodok.

In China, too, the sheer pressure of population had forced an advance from ad hoc improvisation along predetermined Marxist-Maoist guidelines to a deliberate search for optimal administrative techniques, employing a form of cross-impact matrix analysis for which the Chinese language was peculiarly well adapted. Well before the turn of the century a pattern had been systematized that proved immensely successful. To every commune and small village was sent a deck of cards bearing ideograms relevant to impending changes, whether social or technical. By shuffling and dealing the symbols into fresh combinations, fresh ideas could automatically be generated, and the people at a series of public meetings discussed the implications at length and appointed one of their number to summarize their views and report back to Peking. It was cheap and amazingly efficient.

But it didn’t work in any Western language except Esperanto.

The U.S.A. entered the race on the grand scale very late. Not until the nation was reeling under the impact of the Great Bay Quake was the harsh lesson learned that the economy could not absorb disasters of even this magnitude—let alone a nuclear strike which would exterminate millions plural. Even then it took years for the switch from brawn to brain to become definitive in North America.

In some ways the change remained incomplete. At Electric Skillet the primary concern was still with weaponry… but at least the stress was on defense in its literal meaning, not on counterstrike or preemptive strategies. (The name, of course, had been chosen on the frying-pan-and-fire principle.) Newer concepts, though, were embodied at Crediton Hill. There, top-rank analysts constantly monitored the national Delphi pools to maintain a high social-mollification index. Three times since 1990 agitators had nearly brought about a bloody revolution, but each had been aborted. What the public currently yearned for could be deduced by watching the betting, and steps could be taken to ensure that what was feasible was done, what was not was carefully deeveed.

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