This Crowded Earth
Chapter 8: Harry Collins--2029
The guards at Stark Falls were under strict orders not to talk. Each prisoner here was exercised alone in a courtyard runway, and meals were served in the cells. The cells were comfortable enough, and while there were no telescreens, books were available--genuine, old-style books which must have been preserved from libraries dismantled fifty years ago or more. Harry Collins found no titles dated later than 1975. Every day or so an attendant wheeled around a cart piled high with the dusty volumes. Harry read to pass the time.
At first he kept anticipating his trial, but after a while he almost forgot about that possibility. And it was well over a year before he got a chance to tell his story to anyone.
When his opportunity came, his audience did not consist of judge or jury, doctor, lawyer or penologist. He spoke only to Richard Wade, a fellow-prisoner who had been thrust into the adjoining cell on the evening of October 11th, 2013.
Harry spoke haltingly at first, but as he progressed the words came more easily, and emotion lent its own eloquence. His unseen auditor on the other side of the wall did not interrupt or question him; it was enough, for Harry, that there was someone to listen at last.
“So it wasn’t a bit like I’d expected,” he concluded. “No trial, no publicity. I’ve never seen Leffingwell again, nor Manschoff. Nobody questioned me. By the time I recovered consciousness, I was here in prison. Buried alive.”
Richard Wade spoke slowly, for the first time. “You’re lucky. They might have shot you down on the spot.”
“That’s just what bothers me,” Harry told him. “Why didn’t they kill me? Why lock me up incommunicado this way? There aren’t many prisons left these days, with food and space at such a premium.”
“There are no prisons left at all--officially,” Wade said. “Just as there are no longer any cemeteries. But important people are still given private burials and their remains secretly preserved. All a matter of influence.”
“I’ve no influence. I’m not important. Wouldn’t you think they’d consider it risky to keep me alive, under the circumstances? If there’d ever be an investigation--”
“Who would investigate? Not the government, surely.”
“But suppose there’s a political turnover. Suppose Congress want to make capital of the situation?”
“There is no Congress.”
Harry gasped. “No Congress?”
“As of last month. It was dissolved. Henceforth we are governed by the Cabinet, with authority delegated to department heads.”
“But that’s preposterous! Nobody’d stand still for something like that!”
“They did stand still, most of them. After a year of careful preparation--of wholesale exposes of Congressional graft and corruption and inefficiency. Turned out that Congress was the villain all along; the Senators and Representatives had finagled tariff-barriers and restrictive trade-agreements which kept our food supply down. They were opposing international federation. In plain language, people were sold a bill of goods--get rid of Congress and you’ll have more food. That did it.”
“But you’d think the politicians themselves would realize they were cutting their own throats! The state legislatures and the governors--”
“Legislatures were dissolved by the same agreement,” Wade went on. “There are no states any more; just governmental districts. Based upon sensible considerations of area and population. This isn’t the old-time expanding economy based on obsolescence and conspicuous consumption. The primary problem at the moment is sheer survival. In a way, the move makes sense. Old-fashioned political machinery couldn’t cope with the situation; there’s no time for debate when instantaneous decisions are necessary to national welfare. You’ve heard how civil liberties were suspended during the old wars. Well, there’s a war on right now; a war against hunger, a war against the forces of fecundity. In another dozen years or so, when the Leff shot generation is fullgrown and a lot of the elderly have died off, the tensions will ease. Meanwhile, quick action is necessary. Arbitrary action.”
“But you’re defending dictatorship!”
Richard Wade made a sound which is usually accompanied by a derisive shrug. “Am I? Well, I didn’t when I was outside. And that’s why I’m here now.”
Harry Collins cleared his throat. “What did you do?”
“If you refer to my profession, I was a scripter. If you refer to my alleged criminal activity, I made the error of thinking the way you do, and the worse error of attempting to inject such attitudes in my scripts. Seems that when Congress was formally dissolved, there was some notion of preparing a timely show--a sort of historical review of the body, using old film clips. What my superiors had in mind was a comedy of errors; a cavalcade of mistakes and misdeeds showing just why we were better off without supporting a political sideshow. Well, I carried out the assignment and edited the films, but when I drafted a rough commentary, I made the mistake of taking both a pro and con slant. Nothing like that ever reached the telescreens, of course, but what I did was promptly noted. They came for me at once and hustled me off here. I didn’t get a hearing or a trial, either.”
“But why didn’t they execute you? Or--” Harry hesitated--”is that what you expect?”
“Why didn’t they execute you?” Wade shot back. He was silent for a moment before continuing. “No, I don’t expect anything like that, now. They’d have done it on the spot if they intended to do so at all. No, I’ve got another idea about people like you and myself. And about some of the Congressmen and Senators who dropped out of sight, too. I think we’re being stockpiled.”
“It’s all part of a plan. Give me a little time to think. We can talk again, later.” Wade chuckled once more. “Looks as if there’ll be ample opportunity in the future.”
And there was. In the months ahead, Harry spoke frequently with his friend behind the wall. He never saw him--prisoners at Stark Falls were exercised separately, and there was no group assembly or recreation. Surprisingly adequate meals were served in surprisingly comfortable cells. In the matter of necessities, Harry had no complaints. And now that he had someone to talk to, the time seemed to go more swiftly.
He learned a great deal about Richard Wade during the next few years. Mostly, Wade liked to reminisce about the old days. He talked about working for the networks--the commercial networks, privately owned, which flourished before the government took over communications media in the ‘80s.
“That’s where you got your start, eh?” Harry asked.
“Lord, no, boy! I’m a lot more ancient than you think. Why, I’m pushing sixty-five. Born in 1940. That’s right, during World War II. I can almost remember the atomic bomb, and I sure as hell remember the sputniks. It was a crazy period, let me tell you. The pessimists worried about the Russians blowing us up, and the optimists were sure we had a glorious future in the conquest of space. Ever hear that old fable about the blind men examining an elephant? Well, that’s the way most people were; each of them groping around and trying to determine the exact shape of things to come. A few of us even made a little money from it for a while, writing science fiction. That’s how I got my start.”
“You were a writer?”
“Sold my first story when I was eighteen or so. Kept on writing off and on for almost twenty years. Of course, Robertson’s thermo-nuc formula came along in ‘75, and after that everything went to pot. It knocked out the chances of future war, but it also knocked out the interest in speculation or escape-fiction. So I moved over into television for a while, and stayed with it. But the old science fiction was fun while it lasted. Ever read any of it?”
“No,” Harry admitted. “That was all before my time. Tell me, though--did any of it make sense? I mean, did some of those writers foresee what was really going to happen?”
“There were plenty of penny prophets and nickel Nostradamuses,” Wade told him. “But as I said, most of them were assuming war with the Communists or a new era of space travel. Since Communism collapsed and space flight was just an expensive journey to a dead end and dead worlds, it follows that the majority of fictional futures were founded on fallacies. And all the rest of the extrapolations dealt with superficial social manifestations.
“For example, they wrote about civilizations dominated by advertising and mass-motivation techniques. It’s true that during my childhood this seemed to be a logical trend--but once demand exceeded supply, the whole mechanism of stimulating demand, which was advertising’s chief function, bogged down. And mass-motivation techniques, today, are dedicated almost entirely to maintaining minimum resistance to a system insuring our survival.
“Another popular idea was based on the notion of an expanding matriarchy--a gerontomatriarchy, rather, in which older women would take control. In an age when women outlived men by a number of years, this seemed possible. Now, of course, shortened working hours and medical advances have equalized the life-span. And since private property has become less and less of a factor in dominating our collective destinies, it hardly matters whether the male or the female has the upper hand.
“Then there was the common theory that technological advances would result in a push-button society, where automatons would do all the work. And so they might--if we had an unlimited supply of raw materials to produce robots, and unlimited power-sources to activate them. As we now realize, atomic power cannot be utilized on a minute scale.
“Last, but not least, there was the concept of a medically-orientated system, with particular emphasis on psychotherapy, neurosurgery, and parapsychology. The world was going to be run by telepaths, psychosis eliminated by brainwashing, intellect developed by hypnotic suggestion. It sounded great--but the conquest of physical disease has occupied the medical profession almost exclusively.
“No, what they all seemed to overlook, with only a few exceptions, was the population problem. You can’t run a world through advertising when there are so many people that there aren’t enough goods to go around anyway. You can’t turn it over to big business when big government has virtually absorbed all of the commercial and industrial functions, just to cope with an ever-growing demand. A matriarchy loses its meaning when the individual family unit changes character, under the stress of an increasing population-pressure which eliminates the old-fashioned home, family circle, and social pattern. And the more we must conserve dwindling natural resources for people, the less we can expend on experimentation with robots and machinery. As for the psychologist-dominated society, there are just too many patients and not enough physicians. I don’t have to remind you that the military caste lost its chance of control when war disappeared, and that religion is losing ground every day. Class-lines are vanishing, and racial distinctions will be going next. The old idea of a World Federation is becoming more and more practical. Once the political barriers are down, miscegenation will finish the job. But nobody seemed to foresee this particular future. They all made the mistake of worrying about the hydrogen-bomb instead of the sperm-bomb.”
Harry nodded thoughtfully, although Wade couldn’t see his response. “But isn’t it true that there’s a little bit of each of these concepts in our actual situation today?” he asked. “I mean, government and business are virtually one and the same, and they do use propaganda techniques to control all media. As for scientific research, look at how we’ve rebuilt our cities and developed synthetics for food and fuel and clothing and shelter. When it comes to medicine, there’s Leffingwell and his inoculations. Isn’t that all along the lines of your early science fiction?”
“Where’s your Underground?” Richard Wade demanded.