The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Most people were resigned to living wholly on the public level. He was not. He found his code.

A 4GH contained a replicating phage: a group which automatically and consistently deleted all record of a previous persona whenever a replacement was keyed in. Possessed of one, an individual could rewrite him- or herself via any terminal connected to the federal data banks. That meant, since 2005, any veephone including a public one.

This was the most precious of all freedoms, the plug-in life-style raised to the nth power: freedom to become the person you chose to be instead of the person remembered by the computers. That was what Nickie Haflinger desired so keenly that he spent five years pretending he was still himself. It was the enchanted sword, the invulnerable shield, the winged boots, the cloak of invisibility. It was the ultimate defense.

Or so it seemed.

Therefore, one sunny Saturday morning, he left Tarnover, and on Monday he was a life-style counselor in Little Rock, ostensibly aged thirty-five and—as the data-net certified—licensed to practice anywhere in North America.

THE TANGLED WEB “Your first career went well for a while,” Freeman said. “But it came to an abrupt and violent end.”

“Yes.” A harsh chuckle. “I was nearly shot by a woman I advised to go screw someone of a different color. The massed computers of half a continent were in agreement with me, but she wasn’t. I concluded I’d been overoptimistic and rethought myself.”

“Which was when you became an instructor with a three-vee cassette college. I note that for your new post you dropped down to twenty-five, much nearer your real age, even though the bulk of the clientele was forty or over. I wonder why.”

“The answer’s simple. Think what lured most of those clients on to the college’s reels. It was a sense of losing touch with the world. They were hungry for data supplied by people fifteen or twenty years younger, usually because they’d done what they thought best for their children and been repaid with rejection and insults. They were pathetic. What they wanted was not what they claimed to want. They wanted to be told yes, the world really is pretty much as it was when you were young, there aren’t any objective differences, there’s some magic charm you can recite and instantly the crazy moiling framework of the modern world will jell into fixed familiar patterns… The third time a complaint was filed about my tapes I was surpled despite my rigorous proof that I was right. Being right was at a discount in that context, too.”

“So you tried your skill as a full-time Delphi gambler.”

“And made a fortune in next to no time and grew unspeakably bored. I did nothing that anybody else couldn’t do, once he realized the government manipulates Delphi odds to keep the social-mollification index high.”

“Provided he had access to as much computer capacity as you did.”

“But in theory everybody does, given a dollar to drop into a pay phone.”

There was a pause. Freeman resumed in a brittle tone, “Did you have a clearly defined goal in mind which guided you in your choice of roles?”

“You didn’t already dig that out of me?”

“Yes, but when you were regressed. I want your contemporary conscious opinion.”

“It’s still the same; I never hit on a better way of phrasing it. I was searching for a place to stand so that I could move the Earth.”

“Did you ever consider going overseas?”

“No. The one thing I suspected a 4GH might not be good for was a passport, so if I found the right spot it would have to be in North America.”

“I see. That puts your next career into much clearer perspective. You spent a full year with a Utopia-design consultancy.”

“Yes. I was naïve. It took me that long to realize that only the very rich and the very stupid imagine happiness can be bought tailor-made. What’s more, I should have discovered right away that it was company policy to maximize variety from one project to the next. I designed three very interesting closed communities, and in fact the last I heard all were still operating. But trying to include in the next Utopia what seemed to be most promising in the previous one was what got me redunded again. You know, I sometimes wonder what became of last century’s hypothetical life-style labs, where a serious effort was to be made to determine how best human beings can live together.”

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