The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

When she had finished he said, “Not as good as. Worse than.” And followed her out the door.

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE HERD At Tarnover they explained it all so reasonably!

Of course everybody had to be given a personal code! How else could the government do right by its citizens, keep track of the desires, tastes, preferences, purchases, commitments and above all location of a continentful of mobile, free individuals?

Granted, there was an alternative approach. But would you want to see it adopted here? Would you like to find your range of choice restricted to the point where the population became predictable in its collective behavior?

So don’t dismiss the computer as a new type of fetters. Think of it rationally, as the most liberating device ever invented, the only tool capable of serving the multifarious needs of modern man.

Think of it, for a change, as him. For example, think of the friendly mailman who makes certain your letters reach you no matter how frequently you move or over what vast distances. Think of the loyal secretary who always pays your bills when they come due, regardless of what distractions may be on your mind.

Think of the family doctor who’s on hand at the hospital when you fall sick, with your entire medical history in focus to guide the unknown specialist. Or if you want to be less personal and more social, think of computers as the cure for the monotony of primitive mass-production methods. As long ago as the sixties of last century it became economic to turn out a hundred items in succession from an assembly line, of which each differed subtly from the others. It cost the salary of an extra programer and—naturally—a computer to handle the task… but everybody was using computers anyhow, and their capacity was so colossal the additional data didn’t signify.

(When he pondered the subject, he always found himself flitting back and forth between present and past tense; there was that sensitive a balance between what had been expected, indeed hoped for, and what had eventuated. It seemed that some of the crucial decisions were still being made although generations had elapsed since they were formulated.) The movement pattern of late twentieth-century America was already the greatest population flow in history. More people moved annually at vacation time than all the armies led by all the world’s great conquerors put together, plus the refugees they drove from home. What a relief, then, to do no more than punch your code into a public terminal—or, since 2005, into the nearest veephone, which likely was in the room where you were sitting—and explain once that because you’d be in Rome the next two weeks, or surfing at Bondi, or whatever, your house should be watched by the police more keenly than usual, and your mail should be held for so many days unless marked “urgent,” in which case it should be redirected to so-and-so, and the garbage truck needn’t come by on its next weekly round, and—and so forth. The muscles of the nation could be felt flexing with joyous new freedom.


The theory was and always had been: this is the thing the solid citizen has no need to worry about.

Important, later all-important question: what about the hollow citizen?

Because, liberated, the populace took off like so many hot-air balloons.

“Okay, let’s!”—move, take that job in another state, go spend all summer by the lake, operate this winter out of a resort in the Rockies, commute by veetol over a thousand miles, see how island living suits us and forget the idea if it’s a bust…

Subtler yet, more far-reaching: let’s trade wives and children on a monthly rota, good for the kids to get used to multiple parents because after all you’ve been married twice and I’ve been married three times, and let’s quit the city fast before the boss finds out it was me who undercut him on that near-the-knuckle deal, and let’s move out of shouting distance of that twitch you were obsessed with so you can cool down, and let’s go someplace where the word isn’t out on the mouth-to-mouth circuit that you’re skew else you’ll never have the chance to give up men, and let’s see if it’s true about those fine dope connections in Topeka and let’s—let’s—let’s…

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Categories: John Brunner