A decadent computerized future civilization in which social tensions have torn nations apart and only a computer-savvy reporter, a psychiatrist, a mystic seer and an artificial intelligence stand between the world and overwhelming disaster.
Cyberpunk? Too early, but obviously one of cyberpunk's inspirations.
This is the basic premise of The Jagged Orbit (1969) by John Brunner, a book which I had somehow managed to avoid reading until a few days ago. I found the book fascinating, both in its prescience about particular possibilities and in the ways in which its social concerns were limited by the outlook of the late 1960's left. It had both many of the strengths of the cyberpunk of the 1980's and 1990's -- and also many of its weaknesses.
In the year 2014 -- some 45 years in the future of 1969, when the book was written -- the West has become more racially divided than ever before, and governments are collapsing under the stress. Inspired by South African apartheid, America, Britain (and by implication the rest of the Western world) officially classify people as "blank" (white) or "kneeblank" (non-white), and enforce this distinction at law. The kneeblanks have actual, formally-recognized enclaves (mostly in the inner cities) in which the blank government's writ cannot run.
Strained both by this system of apartheid and by repeated failed foreign wars, national governments have greatly lost access to talent, loyalty and economic resources, and power is devolving into the hands of corporations and smaller government units. Religion, faced with the superior success of the socialist states of the East, has also lost its power to persuade, and the people have turned to drugs, psychotherapists and superstitious cults -- some of which command actual psychic powers.
There are almost-regular race riots, which are often murderous and sometimes escalate to the rioters sniping at random passerby with laser rifles and the police levelling whole apartment buildings with attack helicopters. An Evil Corporation run by the Mafia family of the Gottschalks (yes, that's what they are called in the book!) sells weapons to all sides to encourage tension and hence sell more weapons. Unsurprisingly, most people want to stay indoors, and increasingly communicate only by videophone and computer terminals.
This immediately raises questions which are never answered in the book, and interestingly these tend to be the same questions which are gaping holes in most cyberpunk settings. I'll quickly cover them here:
If the Communist countries have both been more economically and militarily successful, why does there seem to be no actual Communist expansion or any societal consequences of same? If the Communist states have weakened just like the West, then how have they been more successful? If they haven't weakened just like the West, then what's stopping them from gobbling up the whole rest of the world? Why, it's almost as if Only the West Is Real, and the rest of the world merely backdrop.
Why couldn't the democracies respond to crisis by electing competent leaders and attracting competent people into the civil and military services? Whatever possessed the nation-states to do anything as monumentally-stupid as ceding national territory in their heartlands to anti-government racial minorities? How exactly do these minorities, occupying what are essentially lots and lots of isolated little ghettos, avoid being wiped out by angry majorities following the frequent race riots?
Given that the world is still divided into many Powers, why haven't some of the Powers tried racial equality and benefitted from having sane and integrated societies rather than the nightmare-world of Watts Riots In Perpetua that seems to describe the rest of the world? Why do the nation-states tolerate the sale of heavy weapons to civilian militias and rebel groups by the Gottschalks? As in much cyberpunk, national governments seem to be frozen by a strange inertia.
Here's a minor question, but one which annoyed me. Supposedly, the global privatization of the TV networks have led to a situation in which almost all airtime is devoted to advertising. There are regulations meant to prevent this, but the "UCC" (a global FCC) is weak and openly despised by the networks, who refuse to obey these regulations.
Ok, but ... how exactly do they force viewers to watch TV shows which are close to 100% advertising? In-story, it's said that most of the viewers just de-rezz the picture and take lots of drugs to get high to the video melange, but are we seriously supposed to believe that no significant number of people want to watch actual television shows? What, in Brunner's anarchic future, prevents at least one network, at least some of the time, from actually offering such shows, and hence gaining a greater audience share?
No explanation -- I guess corporations are just United in their Evil.
I mention this because it's actually important to the plot, and because a far more egregious example of cunning corporate stupidity is central to the plot, as it motivates the novel's main villain.
Matthew Flamen, the world's only remaining "spoolpigeon" (essentially a video blogger with a TV show on a major network) wants to bring down the Big Bads whom he feels are ruining the world, but he can't even seem to stay on the air. It seems as if his own network is sabotaging his transmissions, the better to put on more commercials instead of his show. Matthew's wife Celia has been insane for months, and has been committed to Ginsberg (a mental asylum, and we all get the joke), which is run by the psychiatric guru Dr. Mogshack, whose therapy only seems to be making her worse.
At Ginsberg, an honest psychiatrist, Dr. James Redeeth, is also growing suspicious of Dr. Mogshack's therapeutic techniques. Dr. Redeeth faces two major questions in his life: what to do with a mysterious kneeblank ex-soldier, Harry Madison, who appears to have been committed and remained committed for essentially absurd bureaucratic reasons; and how to convince his lover, Dr. Ariadne Spoelestra, who believes love to be unscientific and unworthy of a psychiatrist, to accept his love in the full, old-fashioned sense in which he means it.
Lyla Clay is a pythoness -- a woman who uses drugs, meditation and her own psychic power to read the people and events around her and utter prophecies. When Lyla is invited to prophesize at Ginsberg, she realizes that Harry Madison is not only completely sane, but saner than anyone she's ever met.
Pedro Diablo is the propagandist for a neeblank enclave, but he is expelled from the enclave when it is discovered (ironically, by a white South African racialist expert) that he is insufficiently "melanist" by biological heritage to qualify for full kneeblank status. Pedro Diablo winds up becoming Matthew Flamen's partner on his TV show. Together, they discover that there is indeed something suspicious going on in high places. They call in Xavier Conroy, essentially the Last Sane Intellectual, to help them.
Meanwhile, the revolutionary Morton Lenigo has been admitted into the United States under threat of neeblank rioting in Detroit -- source of most of America's military vehicles -- if they refuse to admit him. Lenigo promptly sparks unusually-widespread and violent race rioting. This is secretly the fault of Anthony Gottschalk, the up-and-coming new blood of the Gottschalk family, who has an Evil Plan to realize unprecedented arms sales from the ensuing social chaos. He is also making something called "Robot" Gottschalk in the depths of his fortified bunker.
Lyla Clay's agent/boyfriend is murdered by the rioters, and the police arrest her for no obvious reason other than that they found her with the corpse. Dr. Redeeth finally releases Harry Madison, who escorts Lyla back to her apartment. Harry helps her evict a squatter who took over her apartment because the police left the door open (apparently in the Jaggedorbitverse, the police are there to make false arrests but refuse to evict trespassers, to the point where taking over someone's apartment and keeping it by brute force is a viable house-hunting strategy). Harry, who is well over six feet tall and broadshoulders, displays great strength and fighting prowess, apparently taught him by the army.
Then Lyla goes walking with Harry looking for food, which is futile since no restaurant will serve them both due to being a mixed couple. They are then kidnapped and taken to a high-rise apartment by the minions of Michaela Baxendale, a poetess who wants to perform some sort of weird drug-erotic ritual with them for inspiration. The drugs trigger a strange state in Harry Madison, in which he fights off all eight of the kidnappers, injuring many of them, and killing one (who he threw out of a forty-fifth-story window).
In the course of the fight, Harry uttered a prophecy:
"Even at this relatively late stage it was possible for an unarmed man of sufficient determination to overcome considerable opposition. It was not until after the Gottschalk coup of 2015 and the concomitant introduction of System C integrated weaponry that hand-to-hand combat became effectively pointless ... The equipment of individuals with armament adequate to level a medium-sized city nonetheless did not immediately put an end to such combats. For a while, an attempt was made to codify human behavior on a basis analogous to the legandary Code of Chivalry; however, this represented such a radical reversal of current psychological trends that -"
Harry is arrested but promptly released, a fact which amazes everyone because he killed someone. (Here's the strange thing: the reason why they expect him to be imprisoned without bail is the killing, not his race. But the person he killed was a kidnapper who was actively trying to prevent the escape of the victims, and this in a world where mass death in rioting is just shrugged off as unavoidable! Apparently, in the Jaggedorbitverse, celebrities can kidnap people at will, rioters can kill them at will, but outside of a declared riot the right of self-defense is not honored. This is odd because given the other details of the society, I wouldn't have been surprised to hear that kneeblanks are not allowed that right against blanks, as was the case in the real-world Old South).
Most of the main characters meet and discuss the situation. Harry Madison reveals himself to be none other than Robert "Robot" Gottschalk, a cyborg built by Anthony Gottschalk and given the mission to maximize Gottschalk sales. When the Gottschalks marketed their "System C" weapons system -- essentially, powered armor armed with plasma guns and micronuclear grenade launchers -- to civilians on all sides of the social divides, the fighting which resulted destroyed human civilization. The Gottschalks survived and continued to supply arms to the increasingly-depleted population, but profits began to decline as the human race approached extinction.
Then, in 2113, Robert realized that it was the very intensity of the fighting caused by the arms sales which was destroying the Gottschalks' own market. He (somehow) travelled back in time and incarnated himself in the bodies of various combatants throughout history, trying to find a solution to the paradox. Because the process of his incarnation destroyed the previous personalities resident in the bodies of the combatants, he chose only those whose personalities had already been destroyed by madness.
He finally incarnated himself in Harry Madison, but was committed to a mental hospital for years. Now free and having assembled the necessary force of helpers, he is able to inform enough people to stop Anthony Gottschalk and turn the Gottschalks to a slower and less destructive program of arms sales, so that the release of System C in 2015 never happens. Then Harry returns his superhuman intellect to the time stream, to ensure the survival of humanity in the future -- and hence the Gottschalk arms market.
Happy endings all around. Matthew and Celia Flamen are reconciled, and Matthew Flamen and Pedro Diablo become media partners.. Lyla Clay reallizes that she can use her powers for more than just entertainment, and dedicates herself to trying to improve the world (though presumably not to complete non-violence, else the arms dealers won't have a market). Dr. James Redeeth has rescued Dr. Ariadne Spoelestra from death near the novel's climax, and presumably she appreciates him more. The Jaggedorbitverse goes on its messed-up way.
John Brunner's clear point is that only by coming together in peace rather than dividing ourselves in war can we know happiness. He clumsily bookends this with his "Chapters" 1 and 2 and 99 and 100.
Chapter 1: "I -"
Chapter 2: "-solationism."
Chapter 99: "You-"
Chapter 100: "-nification."
And I do mean "clumsily." Though the writing is often good, the moral is handled so anviliciously and with a disregard for basic logic that I'm amazed that anyone not on lots and lots of drugs could have been inspired by it. I liked the book, but when I saw his bookends I groaned at the atrocious pun.
Brunner manages to depict a society with advanced computer and commuinications technologies, though like almost every pre-1976 science fiction writer he misses the significance of the personal computing revolution (while, oddly, assuming that every middle-class person has his own videophone/computer, the "comweb," which however may be a terminal to a central unit). All major organizations and enterprises are utterly dependent upon computers, to the point where "comping" (predicting through analysis and simulation) a proposal is vital to its execution.
In particular, he correctly predicts the importance of blogging, or "spoolpigeoning," as he calls it. Since that's what I'm doing right here, I have a soft spot for his prediction. However, since he assumes that one can only make a blog with the resources of a major corporation, and that there is almost no audience for them outside of the audience of a major TV network, he misses just how widespread and influential blogging would actually become. This failure of prediction is necessary for the plot of his novel.
He even predicts .... well, I'll let Xavier Conroy take the mike:
"It gets into our families, goddamn it, it gets into our very love-making! Christ, do you know I had a girl student last year who thought she was having an affair with a boy back home and all they'd ever done was sit in front of the comweb and masturbate at each other? Twenty miles apart! They'd never even kissed!"
Though this being Brunner's Crapsack World, this is seen as a bad thing. It never seems to enter Conroy's head that the emotional relationship described is quite real, and twenty miles is hardly so great a distance that the couple could not eventually manage to meet in person and physically consumnate their romance.
Brunner, in short, managed to predict the Internet and cybersex, but chose to regard this as a distancing rather than unifying technology.
Merchants of Death
The Big Bads (and, oddly, also the Big Goods) of The Jagged Orbit are the Gottschalks, arms merchants who encourage and perpetuate a state of slow civil war, the better to sell arms to private citizens. The threatened end of the world comes from System C, essentially powered armor.
Now this is neither the first nor will it be the last time that arms makers get blamed for the evil that men do with arms. This is an apparently-irresistible temptation. States and their populations start a war, everyone marches off enthusiastically to glory. The war proves less glorious than expected. After the war, who is to blame? Certainly not the Enthroned People or their Beloved and Highly-Respectable State! No, it is the fault of the weapon makers! Had they not pushed their terrible weapons at us, the world would have remained at peace, as it always had before such weapons were invented -- um, don't think about that.
What's particularly silly about the premise in this book, though, is that System C is so destablizing. The book has already established that there are man-portable micro-nukes, capable of levelling whole blocks or neighborhoods; and lethal hand-held energy weapons, already on the civilian market. There's no mention of powered armor, but it must be available if the Gottschalks are able to mass-produce it and market it at a mere $100,000 a unit including the weapons systems to civilians.
So, wouldn't the armed and police forces already have such weapons -- if not as good, then only marginally inferior? And with those weapons, routine defensive technologies and tactics against them? (System C incorporates both physical supermetal armor and energy shields, which must therefore be proven technologies).
In fact, wouldn't national militaries and security forces be the logical markets for such weapons? (This is how the arms industry works in the real world: it sells first to the military, and only as a technology becomes widespread to first the police and then civilian markets).
Sure, that would get in the way of sparking a multilateral global civil war, but then why would Anthony Gottschalk want to do that? It never seems to occur to Anthony Gottschalk that, once the civil war has leveled everyone else's factories and farms, he won't be able to get goods and foods for his own purposes either; that once everyone else is dead, he'll have no one with whom to trade, and no market on which to spend his profits. In the Jaggedorbitverse, it apparently takes a super-intelligent time-traveling cyborg warrior to realize that if you destroy the economy, selling anything to anyone becomes an activity of very little purpose and profit.
Deus ex Machina, Deus EST Robota
Harry Madison, while set up as a Man of Mystery from the beginning and with clues dropped about what he really is in at least two places in the novel, still comes off from my POV as a bit of an Ass Pull. While there are reasons why an arms company might want to build a super-powered cyborg, there is neither any obvious reason nor method by which that cyborg would, a hundred years later, be able to time-travel and somehow possess the bodies of others, turning them into super-powered cyborgs. I would call this comic-book logic, but comic books are a bit better thought out.
Notice that every other authority figure in the book is monumentally incompetent and irresponsible. No nation-state, and certainly not the United States of America, seems to see anything problematical with an arms-making corporation starting what amounts to a self-defense cult and selling micro-nuclear weapons on the open market. None of them seem to be aware that the Gottschalks are building System C, and none of them seem to try to do anything to try to block it in the timeline that led to Robert's first run up to 2113.
Only Robert can save us, and only because Anthony Gottschalk, in a monumental fit of stupidity, ignored the IBM representatives and programmed the robot to be fanatical about maximizing sales, to the point where Robert is able to extend this to a "Zeroth Law" ("I must protect humanity because only humanity can buy Gottschalk weapons"). This is really absurd, and I don't blame Robert the Robot Gottschalk for grasping the concept of "laughter" when he fully realized the purpose of his existence.
Bad Supplier Choices
Why does the entire USA rely on the neeblank enclave of Detroit to build all their motor vehicles, from trucks to their aircar "skimmers," and including their military vehicles? Since society's been on the verge of a race war for years, with several actual outbreaks of fighting, why hasn't it occurred to anyone that this would leave America vulnerable to a major supply disruption?
Brunner seems to be thinking something along the lines of "The Detroit Automakers are Too Big To Fail, so they're still in business and still have the whole market share, and they're the Detroit Automakers so of course they operate from Detroit."
But jet back. What exactly has prevented the Detroit Automakers from relocating and becoming the [somewhere-else] Automakers? Presumably the neeblanks don't own the auto companies -- is there something about working on an auto assembly line that mystically belongs only to black DNA?
Is this the same as the real-world American energy dependence on Mideastern oil? No, it's more as if all our energy, for all purposes, came from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Do you think that we'd tolerate such a situation for long?
Only Two Races?
Astute readers will have noticed the obvious problem with the "blank-kneeblank" racial system of the Jaggedorbitverse, which is that it segregates whites from blacks. Ok, what happens to every other racial group on Earth? Are they blanks? Neeblanks? The novel never says, despite the fact that the existence of Middle Easterners and Chinese are mentioned (the former classed as "blanks," the latter never classed as anything but apparently able to live in the blank areas).
What about mixed-race people? A major plot point (Pedro Diablo's expulsion) hinges on this, yet they appear to be a very tiny group, easily overlooked by the kneeblanks, or incorporated into blank society. I wonder if Brunner was aware that the vast majority of American blacks have significant white ancestry? The "one-drop" rule might apply, except that (as Pedro Diablo found out) it doesn't.
This a major failure of vision. If you're going to have a strictly racialist system in your storyverse, you have to work out the implications for the major ethnic groups. Brunner's lapse makes it all too evident that his apartheid exists only as a moral foil for the main characters, and that he can't really see how it would work in practice (as South Africa found out, it doesn't really work very well in practice at all).
At one point it is mentioned that black people are literally "magical" in the sense that they have a greater affinity for psychic powers than do white people. This doesn't really bother me so much, but I find it funny -- after all, there are plenty of stereotypes about other ethnic groups on which Brunner could have drawn, some of them even famous in science fiction. Mystical Celts -- especially those named Kinnison or MacDougall -- I'm looking at you!
Naked and Slutty For Social Awareness
This risible speech comes from the 20-year-old Lyla Clay, who is explaining how she came from a good family but had to go down to the streets in order to activate her psychic talents:
"... I was sent to this very proper school, with uniforms and everything - incredibly Victorian -- and I never had the slightest suspicion that I might be a pythoness until I ran away from it. I came to New York. I hadn't any money. I was sleeping on strangers' floors, I was practically in rags because my clothes were wearing out, and all of a sudden when I was wearing more dirt than cloth, then bang. There was the talent. It sort of scared me at first, but I adjusted. And eventually, after I met Dan, I started to figure out how I could encourage it ...
"You're not a kid, Mr. Flamen. How the hell do you think someone learns to identify with the maximum number of other people? You do what they do. You starve with them, you sleep with them, you eat and drink with them, you let them do to you what they want to do, and you don't pass judgement."
This has to be seen in the context of the late 1960's, when lots and lots of naive kids from middle- and upper-class backgrounds were doing exactly what Lyla did -- or pretending that they were doing what Lyla did -- in the belief that this was going to lead them to some sort of amazing revolution in personal consciousness.
It is symptomatic of the era of writing that at no point does Lyla explain, nor does the author nor any of the characters feels that there is any NEED for her to explain, just why this rich teenaged girl decided to run away from her family and school to live as an urban derelict, and stuck to this way of life when she presumably could have gotten out of it at any moment with a single phone call.
There's also a major setting anamoly here. The rich kids who "dropped out" in the Late Sixties were dropping out into the relatively safe streets of America and Britain of their day. I would imagine that life would be considerably worse for people trying to drop out into the streets of the Jaggedorbitverse. If the police are willing to take out whole apartment buildings with airstrikes to get single snipers, killing dozens or hundreds of working people, how do they treat their HOMELESS? How does the criminal underworld treat them? Think the Brazilian slums are bad? What would they be like with the addition of random airstrikes and occasional nuclear terrorism? Do you really think young Lyla Clay would be likely to survive the experience?
Note also the character-copout here. Lyla Clay in-story is shown with only two romantic attachments -- her previous manager Dan, who conveniently gets killed at around the time that he stops being so much fun; and Harry Madison, who turns out to be an asexual super-cyborg from an alternate future. Lyla in this passage implies that it was when she started having sex with Dan that her powers activated. She also implies (here and in another flashback) that she has had sex with lots of other people, but at no point is this specifically shown.
This is significant, because the exact same character-copout was being displayed toward the rich-kid hippies of the Late Sixties by the Left intellectuals, of whom John Brunner was one. On the one hand, the hippies were supposed to be seen as sweet lovable Holy Fools who were leading us toward a consciousness revolution. On the other hand, these were in fact teenage to early-twenties kids who were engaging in all sorts of risky behavior which was in practice destroying them, and which did destroy any and all of them who did not either leave the hippie culture by around 1975, or weren't able to make a lot of money off of said culture, or who simply got unlucky.
The notion that one will emerge from
You starve with them, you sleep with them, you eat and drink with them, you let them do to you what they want to do
with a sense of loving identification with "the masses" is pure Late Sixties fantasy. Think about real homeless kids you've known. Are they loving? Non-judgemental? The ones who live through it tend to be cynical and mistrustful, even paranoid, and with good reason. They've experienced how people treat people who have no safe refuges.
Oh, and most of them have at one time or another had to resort to prostitution, whether of the explicit("Wanna date") or implicit ("I'd do anything for a place to sleep.") variety. Those who haven't have usually had the benefit of at least one utterly-trustworthy friend (often a sibling, boyfriend or girlfriend) and have been very, very lucky -- most notably in not having been homeless for very long before they found a job and housing.
And they left home for reasons more serious than "just because." Kids who run away "just because" run right back home after a few days or weeks of suffering. If they don't, it's usually because they were running from something (most often an abusive parent).
The more I think about this, the more Brunner's romanticization of Lyla Clay and her situation really disgusts me. The more so because it may have led some poor sap to attempt to duplicate the experience.
The Jagged Orbit is an interesting book with some good concepts and a variety of characters, but it ultimately fails because it is too tied to the precise and very unusual situation of the Late Sixties, in which the West was reeling before a campaign of Communist disinformation and the Boomers were just growing up and playing with the idea of revolution, at the same time that racial equality was being born. Brunner tries to extend this era another 45 years, with the same cultural dynamics, and it just doesn't work. The situation of the Late Sixties was unstable, and the Jaggedorbitverse was never a very likely outcome from it.
Of course, it was meant as a cautionary tale -- the point being "if this goes on" (computerization and racial segregation) it would lead to a badly-alienated society on the brink of a race war. But Brunner failed to grasp that computerization, distributed among many individuals, would lead to less alienation (and failed to grasp it despite including a clear example of social media in his novel!), and that the key victories against racial segregation had already been won at the time of writing.
He also, more seriously, failed to grasp the fundamental strength of the West. Had the West faced serious racial separatism in the Late Sixties, we would have put it down. Western governments were not so weak, and the value of "two army corps" is if anything greater than it used to be.
Ironically, since he mentions Islam in passing, he missed the real separatist danger that would menace Europe -- religious separatism. And still I doubt that this separatism will lead to long-term independent enclaves, simply because sovereign States don't tolerate that sort of thing on theri own national territory.
The world is more robust than John Brunner imagines. For which we may all be truly thankful. :)