The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

“It’s easy to prophesy after the event!”

“But Precipice did succeed. The founders knew what they wanted to do, and had valid arguments to support their ideas. The principle of changing one factor and seeing what happens may be fine in the lab. In the larger world, especially when you’re dealing with human beings who are badly disturbed following a traumatic experience and have been forcibly returned to basics—hunger, thirst, epidemics—you aren’t compelled to be so simplistic. Evidence exists from the historical record that certain social structures are viable and others aren’t. The people from Claes recognized that, and did their best to assemble a solid foundation for a new community without bothering to forecast what would evolve from it.”

“Evolution… or devolution?”

“An attempt to backtrack to that fork in our social development where we apparently took a wrong turning.”

“Invoking all kinds of undocumented half-mystical garbage!”

“Such as — ?”

“Oh, this ridiculous notion that we’re imprinted before birth with the structure of the aboriginal family, the hunter-and-gatherer tribe and the initial version of the village.”

“Have you ever tried to silence a baby?”


“You heard me. Humans make mouth noises with the intention of provoking a change in the outside world. Nobody denies any longer that even a dumb baby is printed in advance for language. Damn it, enough of our simian cousins have shown they can use a sound-to-symbol relationship! And equally nobody denies that habit patterns involving status, pack leadership—Whoops, hold everything. I just realized I’ve been manipulated into defending your viewpoint against myself.”

Freeman, relaxing, allowed himself a faint smile.

“And if you continue, you’ll expose a basic fallacy in your argument, won’t you?” he murmured. “Precipice may indeed function, after a fashion. But it does so in isolation. Having worked for a Utopia consultancy, you must realize that if they’re efficiently shielded from the rest of humanity the craziest societies can work… for a while.”

“But Precipice is not isolated. Every day between five hundred and two thousand people punch the ten nines and—well, make confession.”

“Thereby painting a picture of the state of things outside which can be relied on to make Precipicians shudder and feel thankful. True or false, the impression is no doubt comforting.” Freeman leaned back, conscious of having scored. His voice was almost a purr as he continued, “You spent time actually listening to some of the calls, I presume?”

“Yes, and at her own insistence so did Kate, though since she wasn’t planning to stay she wasn’t obliged. They’re quite literal about their service. From the central, they route calls to private homes where one adult is always on duty. And someone literally sits and listens.”

“How about the people who can talk for hours nonstop?”

“There aren’t many of them, and the computers almost always spot them before they’re well under way.”

“For a community so proud of having evaded the data-net, they rely a great deal on computers, don’t they?”

“Mm-hm. Must be the only place on Earth where they’ve made a cottage industry out of the things. It’s amazing how useful they are when you don’t burden them with irrelevancies, like recording a transaction worth fifty cents.”

“I must find out some time where you draw your dividing line: fifty cents, fifty dollars, fifty thousand dollars… But go on. What were the calls like?”

“I was astonished at how few cranks there were. I was told that cranks get disheartened when they find they can’t provoke an argument. Someone who’s convinced all human faults are due to wearing shoes, or who just found evidence to impeach the president scrawled on the wall of a public toilet, wants to be met with open disagreement; there’s an element of masochism there which isn’t satisfied by punching pillows. But people with genuine problems—they’re a different matter.”

“Give some examples.”

“Okay. It’s a platitude you yourself have used to me to say that the commonest mental disorder now is personality shock. But I never realized before how many people are aware they’re lapsing into its sub-clinical penumbra. I recall one poker who confessed he’d tried the White House Trick, and it had worked.”

“What sort of trick?”

“Sometimes it’s known as going to the Mexican laundry.”

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