The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

“That’s it.” Freeman resumed his chair, fresh ice cubes tinkling in his refilled glass. “I took on the assignment to interrogate you like any other assignment. The list of charges against you was long enough, and there was one in particular that touched me on a sore spot. Feeding false data into the net, naturally. On top of which I’d heard about you. I moved here only three years ago—from Weychopee, incidentally, the place you know as ‘Electric Skillet’—and even then there was vague gossip among the students about some poker who once faded into the air and never got caught. You’ve become a sort of legend, did you know?”

“Anybody copying my example?”

Freeman shook his head. “They made it tougher to bow out. And maybe no one since your day has turned up with the same type of talent.”

“If so, doubtless he or she would have been drawn to your notice. You’re a person of considerable standing, aren’t you, Dr. Freeman? Or is it Mr. Freeman? I seem to have your measure pretty accurately. I’ll stab for ‘mister.’”

“Correct. My degrees are scholarates, not mere doctorates. I’ve always been very proud of that. Like surgeons over in Britain, taking offense at being called Dr. So-and-so… But it’s irrelevant, it’s superfluous, it’s silly! Know what hit me hardest when I listened to your account of Precipice?”

“Tell me.”

“The dense texture of people’s lives. Filled out instead of being fined down. I’m trained in three disciplines, but I haven’t broadened out as a person from that base. I’ve fined down, focusing all I know along one narrow line.”

“That’s what’s wrong with Tarnover, isn’t it?”

“I—I half see what you mean. Amplify, please.”

“Well, you once defended Tarnover with the argument that it’s designed to provide an optimal environment for people so well adjusted to the rapid change of modern society that they can be trusted to plan for others as well as for themselves. Or words to that effect. But it’s not happening, is it? Why? Because it’s still under the overriding control of people who, craving power, achieved it by the same old methods they used in—hell, for all I know, in predynastic Egypt. For them there’s only one way to outstrip somebody who’s overtaking you. Go faster. But this is the space age, remember. And the other day I hit on a metaphor that neatly sums my point.” He quoted the case of two bodies each in circular orbit.

Freeman looked faintly surprised. “But everybody knows—” he began, and then checked. “Oh. No, not everybody. I wish I’d thought of that. I’d have liked to ask Hartz.”

“I’m sure. But think it through. Not everybody knows. In this age of unprecedented information flow, people are haunted by the belief they’re actually ignorant. The stock excuse is that this is because there’s literally too much to be known.”

Freeman said defensively, “It’s true.” And sipped his whisky.

“Granted. But isn’t there another factor that does far more damage? Don’t we daily grow more aware that data exist which we’re not allowed to get at?”

“You said something about that before.” Freeman’s forehead creased with concentration. “A brand-new reason for paranoia, wasn’t that it? But if I’m to accept that you’re right, then… Damnation, it sounds as though you’re determined to deevee every single course of action we’ve taken in the past half century.”


“But that’s out of the question!” Freeman straightened in dismay.

“No, that’s an illusion. A function of a wrongly chosen viewpoint. Take it by steps. Try the holist approach, which you used to decry. Think of the world as a unit, and the developed—the over-developed—nations as analogous to Tarnover, or better yet to Trianon. And think of the most successful of the less-rich countries as akin to those P-A communities which began under such unpromising circumstances yet which are turning out to be more tolerable places to live than most other cities on the continent. In short, what I’m talking about is Project Parsimony writ large: the discontinuation of an experiment that cost far too much to set up and hasn’t paid off.”

Freeman pondered for a long while. At last he said, “If I were to agree that you’re right, or even partly right, what would you expect me to do?”

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