The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

“What you say reinforces my favorite image of Tarnover: a rotting carcass, pullulating with indistinguishable maggots, whose sole purpose in life is to grab more of the dead flesh more quickly than their rivals.”

“Ah, yes. The conqueror worm. I find it curious that you should have turned out to be of a religious bent, given the cynicism with which you exploited the trappings of your minister’s role at Toledo.”

“But I’m not religious. Chiefly because the end point of religious faith is your type of blind credulity.”

“Excellent. A paradox. Resolve it for me.” Freeman leaned back, crossing his thin legs and setting his thin fingers tip to tip with elbows on the side of his chair.

“You believe that man is comprehensible to himself, or at any rate you act as though you do. Yet you refer constantly to processes that began back then and will continue forever and ever amen. What you’re trying to do is step out of the flow of process, just as superstitious savages did—do! — by invoking divine forces not confined by human limitations. You give lip service to the process, but you won’t accept it. On the contrary, you strive to dominate it. And that can’t be done unless you stand outside it.”

“Hmm. You’re an atavism, aren’t you? You have the makings of a schoolman! But that doesn’t save you from being wrong. We are trying not to want to step out of the flow, because we’ve recognized the nature of the process and its inevitability. The best that can be hoped for is to direct it into the most tolerable channels. What we’re doing at Tarnover is possibly the most valuable service any small group ever performed for mankind at large. We’re diagnosing our social problems and then deliberately setting out to create the person who can solve them.”

“And how many problems have been solved to date?”

“We haven’t yet exterminated ourselves.”

“You claim credit for that? I knew you had gall, but this is fantastic! You could just as well argue that in the case of human beings it took the invention of nuclear weapons to trigger the life-saving response most species show when faced with the fangs and claws of a tougher rival.”

“That in fact appears to be true.”

“If you believed that you wouldn’t be working so hard to universalize the new conformity.”

“Is that a term you coined yourself?”

“No, I borrowed it from someone whose writings aren’t particularly loved at Tarnover: Angus Porter.”

“Well, it’s a resounding phrase. But does it mean anything?”

“I wouldn’t bother to answer except that it’s better to be talking in present time than sitting back inside my head while you interrogate my memory…because you know damned well what it means. Look at yourself. You’re part of it. It’s a century old. It began when for the first time people in a wealthy country started tailoring other cultures to their own lowest common denominator: people with money to spend who were afraid of strange food, who told the restaurateur to serve hamburgers instead of enchiladas or ‘fish and chips instead of couscous, who wanted something pretty to hang on the wall at home and not what some local artist had sunk his heart and soul in, who found it too hot in Rio and too cold in Zermatt and insisted on going there anyhow.”

“We’re to be blamed because that’s how people reacted long before Tarnover was founded?” Freeman shook his head. “I remain unconvinced.”

“But this is the concept you started with, the one you’ve clung to! You walked straight into a trap with no way out. You wanted to develop a generalized model of mankind, and this was the handiest to build on: more general than pre-World War I European royalty despite the fact that that was genuinely cosmopolitan, and more homogeneous than the archetypal peasant culture, which is universal but individualized. What you’ve wound up with is a schema where the people who obey those ancient evolutionary principles you cite so freely—as for example by striking roots in one place that will last a lifetime—are regarded by their fellows as ‘rather odd.’ It won’t be long before they’re persecuted. And then how will you justify your claim that the message in the genes overrides consciously directed modern change?”

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Categories: John Brunner