The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Plus, all the time and everywhere, the sneaking suspicion: don’t look now, I think we’re being followed.

Two years after they spliced the home-phone service into the continental net the system was screaming in silent agony like the limbs of a marathon runner who knows he can shatter the world’s best time provided he can make the final mile.

But, they asked at Tarnover in the same oh-so-reasonable tones, what else could we have done?

LET’S ALL BE DIFFERENT SAME AS ME “That,” Freeman said thoughtfully, “sounds like a question you still have found no answer to.”

“Oh, shut up. Put me back in regressed mode, for God’s sake. I know you don’t call this torture—I know you call it stimulus-response evaluation—but it feels like torture all the same and I’d rather get it over and done with. Since there isn’t an alternative.”

Freeman scanned his dials and screens.

“Unfortunately it’s not safe to regress you again at the moment. It will take a day or so for the revived effects of your overload at KC to flush out of your system. It was the most violent experience you’ve undergone as an adult. Extremely traumatizing.”

“I’m infinitely obliged for the data. I suspected so, but it’s nice to have it confirmed by your machines.”

“Sweedack. Just as it’s good to have what the machines tell us confirmed by your conscious personality.”

“Are you a hockey ‘fish?”

“Not in the sense of following one particular team, but the game does offer a microcosm of modern society, doesn’t it? Group commitment, chafing against restrictive rules, enactment of display-type aggression more related to status than hate or fear, plus the use of banishment as a means of enforcing conformity. To which you can add the use of the most primitive weapon, the club, albeit stylized.”

“So that’s how you view society. I’ve been wondering. How trivial! How oversimplified! You mention restrictive rules… but rules only become restrictive when they’re obsolescent. We’ve revised our rules at every stage of our social evolution, ever since we learned to talk, and we’re still making new ones that suit us better. We’ll carry right on unless fools like you contrive to stop us!”

Leaning forward, Freeman cupped his sharp chin in his right palm.

“We’re into an area of fundamental difference of opinion,” he said after a pause. “I put it to you that no rule consciously invented by mankind since we acquired speech has force equivalent to those inherited from perhaps fifty, perhaps a hundred thousand generations of evolution in the wild state. I further suggest that the chief reason why modern society is in turmoil is that for too long we claimed that our special human talents could exempt us from the heritage written in our genes.”

“It’s because you and those like you think in strict binary terms—‘either-or’—as though you’ve decided machines are our superiors and you want to imitate them, that I have to believe you not only don’t have the right answer but can never find it. You treat human beings on the black-box principle. Cue this reflex, that response ensues; cue another and get something different. There’s no room in your cosmos for what you call special talents.”

“Come, now.” Freeman gave a faint, gaunt smile. “You’re talking in terms at least two generations old. Have you deleted from your mind all awareness of how sophisticated our methodology has become since the 1960s?”

“And have you suppressed all perception of how it’s rigidified, like medieval theology, with your collective brilliance concentrated on finding means to abolish any view not in accord with yours? Don’t bother to answer that. I’m experiencing the reality of your black-box approach. You’re testing me to destruction, not as an individual but as a sample that may or may not match your idealized model of a person. If I don’t react as predicted, you’ll revise the model and try again. But you won’t care about me.”

“Sub specie aeternitatis,” Freeman said, smiling anew, “I find no evidence for believing that I matter any more than any other human being who ever existed or who ever will exist. Nor does any of them matter more than I do. We’re elements in a process that began in the dim past and will develop through who knows what kind of future.”

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