Posts Tagged ‘Poul Anderson’

A prophetic SF story of a U.S. cyber-police state

August 1, 2012

Poul Anderson’s short story “Sam Hall,” published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1953, foresaw a 21st century U.S. police state which dominated the world, through use of advanced computer and surveillance technology.

Citizen Blank Blank, Anytown, Somewhere, U.S.A., approaches the hotel desk.  “Single with bath.” … …

Citizen Blank takes out his wallet, extracts his card, gives it to the registry machine, an automatic set of gestures.  Aluminum jaws close on it, copper teeth feel for the magnetic encodings, electronic tongue tastes the life of Citizen Blank.

Place and date of birth.  Parents.  Race.  Religion.  Educational, military and civilian service records.  Marital status.  Children,  Occupations, from the beginning to the present.  Affiliations.  Physical measurements, fingerprints, retinals, blood type.  Basic psychotype.  Loyalty rating.  Loyalty index as a function of time to moment of last test given.  Click, click.  Bzzz.

“Why are you here, sir?”

“Salesman.  I expect to be in Cincinnati tomorrow night.”

The clerk (32 yrs., married, two children; NB, confidential, Jewish.  To be kept out of key occupations) pushes buttons.

Click, click.  The machine returns the card.  Citizen Blank puts it back in his wallet. … …

The machine talks to itself.  Click, click.  A bulb winks at its neighbor as if they shared a private joke.  The total signal goes out over the wires.

Accompanied by a thousand others, it shoots down the last cable and into the sorter unit of Central Records.  Click, click.  Bzzz.  Whrrr.  Wink and glow.  The distorted molecules in a particular spool show the pattern of Citizen Blank, and this is sent back.  It enters the comparison unit, to which the signal corresponding to him has also been shunted.  The two are perfectly in phase; nothing wrong.  Citizen Blank is staying in that town  where, last night, he said he would, so he has not had to file a correction.

The new information is added to the record of Citizen Blank.  The whole of his life returns to the memory bank.  It is wiped from the scanner and comparison units, that these may be free for the next arrival.

The machine has swallowed and digested another day.  It is content.

The surveillance technology that Poul Anderson envisioned in 1953 is today’s reality.  Every telephone call, every credit card transaction, every Google search is on record and available to Homeland Security.  The fascist government in Poul Anderson’s story does not exist, but we’re closer to it that we were in 1953, and the legal, institutional and technological infrastructure needed to implement such a police state is in place.

One of Anderson’s characters reflected on how this came to be.

A recollection touched him, booklegged stuff from the forties and fifties of the last century which he had read: French, German, British, Italian.  The intellectuals had been fretful about the Americanization of Europe, the crumbling of old culture before the mechanized barbarism of soft drinks, hard sells, enormous chrome-plated automobiles (dollar grins, the Danes had called them), chewing gum, plastics. … None of them had protested the simultaneous Europeanization of America: bloated government, unlimited armament, official nastiness, censors, secret police, chauvinism. … Well, for a while there had been objectors, but their own excesses and sillinesses discredited them, then later. …

It would be mean-spirited, small-minded and incorrect to blame Europeans for setting a bad example.  But if somebody had described our present Homeland Security state to me back in 1953, I would have thought the person was talking about some central European dictatorship.  I would have thought of our present reality as science fiction.

The NSA Is Building the World’s Largest Spy Center (Watch What You Say) for an article by James Bamford in Wired.  Hat tip for this to Hal Bauer.

Click on Assange ‘The World Tomorrow’ — Cypherpunks uncut version for an extended discussion of Internet surveillance, privacy and freedom.

Fairy gold and economic stimulus

November 8, 2010

Poul Anderson wrote a short story 26 years ago entitled “Fairy Gold” which illustrated how economic stimulus is supposed to work better than anything else I know of.

Poul Anderson

The situation was that a brave but penniless young man wanted to join a voyage of merchant adventurers, but lacked the money to buy a share of the expedition.  His sweetheart wanted him to stay home and work in the pottery shop which she inherited from her grandfather.  Unexpectedly, a bunch of elves maneuvered him into fighting an ogre and at sundown, as a reward for his victory, gave him a a five-pound gold coin, with the warning to spend it quickly.

The young man exchanged the enormous coin for regular money with a banker, and bought himself a share of the ship’s expedition.  The banker exchanged the gold for diamonds at a profit; the jeweler bought pearls from the ship’s captain.  The captain gave the gold to a beautiful aging courtesan, whom he loved, and she bought the shop from the young man’s sweetheart in order to have an income when her beauty faded.  Without responsibility for the shop, the young woman saw no impediment to joining the young man on the expedition.  She rushed to join him, just as the sun came up and the gold coin evaporated, because it was fairy gold.  But although it wasn’t real, everyone concerned was better off for having had it.

Last week the Federal Reserve Board conjured up $600 billion out of nothing, which it will use to buy government bonds.  The board hopes the $600 billion will go sloshing through the economy, and create effects similar to the fairy gold in Poul Anderson’s story.

Maybe it will.  It certainly is not going to evaporate at sunrise.  But it may not go circulating through the economy, either, as might have been the case in earlier recessions.  All classes of people and institutions are in debt – individuals, businesses, local governments, banks.  The prudent thing for them to do if a little extra money comes into their hands is to put it away.  Or invest it in a foreign country, where interest rates, unlike in the United States, are higher than near-zero.

Financial legerdemain got us into the mess we’re in.  I don’t think we can count on financial legerdemain to get us out.

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