The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

“But just as when you joined G2S you were immediately whisked away to a welcome party—”

“For pity’s sake! At places like G2S you need the excuse of a new arrival to hold a party; it’s a business undertaking, designed to let him and his new colleagues snuff around each other’s assholes like wary dogs! At Precipice the concept of the party is built into the social structure; those parties were going to be held anyhow, because of a birthday or an anniversary or just because it was a fine warm evening and a batch of homemade wine was shaping well enough to share. I’m disappointed in you. I’d imagined that you would have seen through the government’s attempt to deevee Precipice and gone back to the source material.”

For the first time Freeman seemed to be visibly on the defensive. He said in a guarded tone, “Well, naturally I—”

“Save the excuses. If you had dug deep, I wouldn’t be giving you this as news. Oh, think, man, think! The Disasterville U.S.A. study constitutes literally the only first-rank analysis of how the faults inherent in our society are revealed in a post-catastrophe context. Work done at other refugee settlements was trivial and superficial, full of learned clichés. But after saying straight out that the victims of the Bay Quake couldn’t cope because they’d quit trying to fend for themselves—having long ago discovered that the reins of power had been gathered into the hands of a corrupt and jealous in-group—the people from Claes College topped it off with what Washington felt to be the ultimate insult. They said, ‘And this is how to put it right!’” A dry chuckle.

“Worse still, they proceeded to demonstrate it, and worst of all, they stopped the government from interfering.”

“How long after your arrival were you told about that?”

“I wasn’t told. I figured it out myself that same evening. It was a classic example of the kind of thing that’s so obvious you ignore it. In my case specifically, after my last contact with Hearing Aid I’d unconsciously blanked off all further consideration of the problem. Otherwise I’d have spotted the solution at once.”

Freeman sighed. “I thought you were going to defend your obsession with Precipice, not excuse your own shortcomings.”

“I enjoy it when you needle me. It shows that your control is getting ragged. Let me tatter it a bit more. I warn you, I intend to make you lose your temper eventually, and never mind how many tranquilizers you take per day. Excuse me; a joke in poor taste. But—oh, please be candid. Has it never surprised you that so few solid data emerged from the aftermath of the Bay Quake, the greatest single calamity in the country’s history?”

Freeman’s answer was harsh. “It was also the most completely documented event in our history!”

“Which implies that a lot of lessons should have been learned, doesn’t it? Name a few.”

Freeman sat silent. Once again his face gleamed with sweat. He interlocked his ringers as though to prevent them trembling visibly.

“I think I’m making my point. Fine. Consider. Vast hordes of people had to start from scratch after the quake, and the public at large felt obliged to help them. It was a perfect opportunity to allot priorities: to stand back and assess what was and was not worth having among the countless choices offered by our modern ingenuity. Years, in some cases as much as a decade, elapsed before the economy was strong enough to finance the conversion of the original shantytowns into something permanent. Granted that the refugees themselves were disadvantaged: what about the specialists from outside, the federal planners?”

“They consulted with the settlers, as you well know.”

“But did they help them to make value judgments? Not on your life. They counted the cost in purely financial terms. If it was cheaper to pay this or that community to go without something, that’s what the community wound up lacking. Under the confident misapprehension that they were serving the needs of the nation by acting as indispensable guinea pigs. Where was the follow-up? How much money was allocated to finding out whether a community without veephones, or without automatic instant credit-transfer facilities, or without home encyclopedia service, was in any sense better or worse than the rest of the continent? None—none! What halfhearted projects were allowed to show their heads were axed in the next session of Congress. Not profitable. The only place where constructive work was done was Precipice, and that was thanks to amateur volunteers.”

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