The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner


“The idea came up that it took the advent of the H-bomb to bring about in human beings the response you see in other animals when confronted with bigger claws or teeth.”

“Or a dominant figure in his private cosmos. Like Bagheera rolling over kitten-style to greet me when I get back from school. I do hope they’re looking after him properly.”

“We’ve been promised that.”

“Yes, but… Never mind. I didn’t mean to change the subject.”

“On principle I differed with him, but he was quite justified in saying that for all we know maybe that is the case. Well, if it’s true that our threshold of survival-prone behavior is so high it takes the prospect of total extermination to activate modes of placation and compromise, may there not be other processes, equally life-preserving, which can similarly be triggered off only at a far higher level of stimulus than you find among our four-legged cousins?”

On his ranch in northern Texas, political historian Rush Compton and his wife Nerice, some years his junior and in occasional practice as a market-research counselor, entertained a couple of house guests. Considerable use was made of their home computer terminal. The weather was fresh and clear, with intermittent gusts of sharp northerly wind.

“Wait a moment. That threshold may be dangerously high. Think of population.”

“Yes indeed. I started with population. Not having a fixed breeding season was among the reasons why mankind achieved dominance; it kept our numbers topped up at an explosive rate. Past a certain stage restrictive processes set in: male libido is reduced or diverted into nonfertile channels, female ovulation is irregularized and sometimes fails completely. But long before we reach that point we find the company of our fellow creatures so unbearable we resort to war, or a tribal match. Kill one another or ourselves.”

“So our evolutionary advantage has turned unnoticed into a handicap.”

“Kate, I love you.”

“I know. I’m glad.”

At his secluded home in Massachusetts, Judge Virgil Horovitz, retired, and his housekeeper Alice Bronson—he was widowed—entertained house guests and used his computer terminal for the first time since his retirement. A gale had stripped most of the trees around his house of their gorgeous red-gold foliage; at night, frost made the fallen leaves crackle and rustle underfoot.

“But what the hell can we do with an insight like yours? We’ve had insights before, from social theorists and historians and politicians and preachers, and we’re in a mess in spite of all. The idea of turning the entire planet into a madhouse in the hope of triggering off some species-saving reflex—no, it’s out of the question. Suppose at some early stage of your scheme we hit a level where a billion people go collectively in-insane?”

“That’s the best we can look forward to, and I do mean the best, if the people at Tarnover are allowed their way.”

“I think you’re serious!”

“Oh, maybe it wouldn’t be a whole billion. But it could be half the population of North America. And a hundred and some million is enough, isn’t it?”

“How would it happen?”

“Theoretically at least, one of the forces operating on us consists in the capacity, which we don’t share with other animals, to elect whether or not we shall give way to an ingrained impulse. Our social history is the tale of how we learned to substitute conscious ethical behavior for simple instinct, right? On the other hand, it remains true that few of us are willing to admit how much influence our wild heritage exercises on our behavior. Not directly, because we’re not still wild, but indirectly, because society itself is a consequence of our innate predispositions.” With a rueful chuckle, he added, “You know, one of the things I most regret about what’s happened is that I could have enjoyed my arguments with Paul Freeman. There was so much common ground between us… But I didn’t dare. At all costs I had to shake his view of the world. Otherwise he’d never have toppled when Hartz pushed him.”

“Stop digressing, will you?”

“Sorry. Where were we? Oh, I was about to say that at Tarnover they’re mistakenly trying to postpone the moment where our reflexes take over. They ought to know that’s wrong. Freeman himself cited the best treatment for personality shock, which doesn’t use drugs or any other formal therapy, just liberates the victim to do something he’s always wanted and never achieved. In spite of evidence like that, though, they go on trying to collect the people most sensitive to our real needs so that they can isolate them from the world. Whereas what they ought to be doing is turning them loose in full knowledge of their own talent, so that when we reach the inevitable overload point our reflexes will work for instead of against our best interests.”

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