All the People

by R. A. Lafferty

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Tin Tony Trotz had only one job--to watch out for something a little odd--in a universe that was insane!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Anthony Trotz went first to the politician, Mike Delado. “How many people do you know, Mr. Delado?”

“Why the question?”

“I am wondering just what amount of detail the mind can hold.”

“To a degree I know many. Ten thousand well, thirty thousand by name, probably a hundred thousand by face and to shake hands with.”

“And what is the limit?” Anthony inquired.

“Possibly I am the limit.” The politician smiled frostily. “The only limit is time, speed of cognizance and retention. I am told that the latter lessens with age. I am seventy, and it has not done so with me.

Whom I have known I do not forget.”

“And with special training could one go beyond you?”

“I doubt if one could--much. For my own training has been quite special. Nobody has been so entirely with the people as I have. I’ve taken five memory courses in my time, but the tricks of all of them I had already come to on my own. I am a great believer in the commonality of mankind and of near equal inherent ability. Yet there are some, say the one man in fifty, who in degree if not in kind do exceed their fellows in scope and awareness and vitality. I am that one man in fifty, and knowing people is my specialty.”

“Could a man who specialized still more--and to the exclusion of other things--know a hundred thousand men well.”

“It is possible. Dimly.”

“A quarter of a million?”

“I think not. He might learn that many faces and names, but he would not know the men.”

Anthony went next to the philosopher, Gabriel Mindel.

“Mr. Mindel, how many people do you know?”

“How know? Per se? A se? Or In Se? Per suam essentiam, perhaps?

Or do you mean Ab alio? Or to know as Hoc aliquid? There is a fine difference there. Or do you possibly mean to know in _Substantia prima, or in the sense of comprehensive noumena_?”

“Somewhere between the latter two. How many persons do you know by name, face, and with a degree of intimacy?”

“I have learned over the years the names of some of my colleagues, possibly a dozen of them. I am now sound on my wife’s name, and I seldom stumble over the names of my offspring--never more than momentarily. But you may have come to the wrong man for--whatever you have come for. I am notoriously poor at names, faces, and persons. I have even been described (vox faucibus haesit) as absent-minded.”

“Yes, you do have the reputation. But perhaps I have not come to the wrong man in seeking the theory of the thing. What is it that limits the comprehensive capacity of the mind of man? What will it hold? What restricts?”

“The body.”

“How is that?”

“The brain, I should say, the material tie. The mind is limited by the brain. It is skull-bound. It can accumulate no more than its cranial capacity, though not one tenth of that is ordinarily used. An unbodied mind would (in esoteric theory) be unlimited.”

“And how in practical theory?”

“If it is practical, a pragma, it is a thing and not a theory.”

“Then we can have no experience with the unbodied mind, or the possibility of it?”

“We have not discovered any area of contact, but we may entertain the possibility of it. There is no paradox there. One may rationally consider the irrational.”


Anthony went next to see the priest.

“How many people do you know?”

“I know all of them.”

“That has to be doubted,” said Anthony after a moment.

“I’ve had twenty different stations. And when you hear five thousand confessions a year for forty years, you by no means know all about people, but you do know all people.”

“I do not mean types. I mean persons.”

“Oh, I know a dozen or so well, a few thousands somewhat less.”

“Would it be possible to know a hundred thousand people, a half million?”

“A mentalist might know that many to recognize; I don’t know the limit.

But darkened man has a limit set on everything.”

“Could a somehow emancipated man know more?”

“The only emancipated man is the corporally dead man. And the dead man, if he attains the beatific vision, knows all other persons who have ever been since time began.”

“All the billions?”

“All.”

“With the same brain?”

“No. But with the same mind.”

“Then wouldn’t even a believer have to admit that the mind which we have now is only a token mind? Would not any connection it would have with a completely comprehensive mind be very tenuous? Would we really be the same person if so changed? It is like saying a bucket would hold the ocean if it were fulfilled, which only means filled full. How could it be the same mind?”

“I don’t know.”

Anthony went to see a psychologist.

“How many people do you know, Dr. Shirm?”

“I could be crabby and say that I know as many as I want to; but it wouldn’t be the truth. I rather like people, which is odd in my profession. What is it that you really want to know?”

“How many people can one man know?”

“It doesn’t matter very much. People mostly overestimate the number of their acquaintances. What is it that you are trying to ask me?”

“Could one man know everyone?”

“Naturally not. But unnaturally he might seem to. There is a delusion to this effect accompanied by an euphoria, and it is called--”

“I don’t want to know what it is called. Why do specialists use Latin and Greek?”

“One part hokum, and two parts need; there simply not being enough letters in the alphabet of exposition without them. It is as difficult to name concepts as children, and we search our brains as a new mother does. It will not do to call two children or two concepts by one name.”

“Thank you. I doubt that this is delusion, and it is not accompanied by euphoria.”


Anthony had a reason for questioning the four men since (as a new thing that had come to him) he knew everybody. He knew everyone in Salt Lake City, where he had never been. He knew everybody in Jebel Shah where the town is a little amphitheater around the harbor, and in Batangas and Weihai. He knew the loungers around the end of the Galata bridge in Istambul, and the porters in Kuala Lumpur. He knew the tobacco traders in Plovdiv, and the cork-cutters of Portugal. He knew the dock workers in Djibouti, and the glove-makers in Prague. He knew the vegetable farmers around El Centro, and the muskrat trappers of Barrataria Bay.

He knew the three billion people of the world by name and face, and with a fair degree of intimacy.

“Yet I’m not a very intelligent man. I’ve been called a bungler. And they’ve had to reassign me three different times at the filter center.

I’ve seen only a few thousands of these billions of people, and it seems unusual that I should know them all. It may be a delusion as Dr. Shirm says, but it is a heavily detailed delusion, and it is not accompanied by euphoria. I feel like green hell just thinking of it.”

He knew the cattle traders in Letterkenny Donegal; he knew the cane cutters of Oriente, and the tree climbers of Milne Bay. He knew the people who died every minute, and those who were born.

“There is no way out of it. I know everybody in the world. It is impossible, but it is so. And to what purpose? There aren’t a handful of them I could borrow a dollar from, and I haven’t a real friend in the lot. I don’t know whether it came to me suddenly, but I realized it suddenly. My father was a junk dealer in Wichita, and my education is spotty. I am maladjusted, introverted, incompetent and unhappy, and I also have weak kidneys. Why would a power like this come to a man like me?”

The children in the streets hooted at him. Anthony had always had a healthy hatred for children and dogs, those twin harassers of the unfortunate and the maladjusted. Both run in packs, and both are cowardly attackers. And if either of them spots a weakness he will never let it go. That his father had been a junk dealer was not reason to hoot at him. But how did the children even know about that? Did they possess some fraction of the power that had come to him lately?


But he had strolled about the town for too long. He should have been at work at the filter center. Often they were impatient with him when he wandered off from his work, and Colonel Peter Cooper was waiting for him when he came in now.

“Where have you been, Anthony?”

“Walking. I talked to four men. I mentioned no subject in the province of the filter center.”

“Every subject is in the province of the filter center. And you know that our work here is confidential.”

“Yes, sir, but I do not understand the import of my work here. I would not be able to give out information that I do not have.”

“A popular misconception. There are others who might understand the import of it, and be able to reconstruct it from what you tell them.

How do you feel?”

“Nervous, unwell, my tongue is furred, my kidneys--”

“Ah yes, there will be someone here this afternoon to fix your kidneys.

I had not forgotten. Is there anything that you want to tell me?”

“No, sir.”

Colonel Cooper had the habit of asking that of his workers in the manner of a mother asking a child if he wants to go to the bathroom.

There was something embarrassing in his intonation.

Well, he did want to tell him something, but he didn’t know how to phrase it. He wanted to tell the colonel that he had newly acquired the power of knowing everyone in the world, that he was worried how he could hold so much in his head that was not noteworthy for its capacity. But he feared ridicule more than he feared anything else and he was a tangle of fears.

But he thought he would try it a little bit on his co-workers.

“I know a man named Walter Walloroy in Galveston,” he said to Adrian.

“He drinks beer at the Gizmo bar, and is retired.”

“What is the superlative of so what?”

“But I have never been there,” said Anthony.

“And I have never been in Kalamazoo.”

“I know a girl in Kalamazoo. Her name is Greta Harandash. She is home today with a cold. She is prone to colds.”

But Adrian was a creature both uninterested and uninteresting. It is very hard to confide in one who is uninterested.

“Well, I will live with it a little while,” said Anthony. “Or I may have to go to a doctor and see if he can give me something to make all these people go away. But if he thinks my story is a queer one, he may report me back to the center, and I might be reclassified again. It makes me nervous to be reclassified.”

So he lived with it a while, the rest of the day and the night. He should have felt better. A man had come that afternoon and fixed his kidneys; but there was nobody to fix his nervousness and apprehensions.

And his skittishness was increased when the children hooted at him as he walked in the morning. That hated epithet! But how could they know that his father had been a dealer in used metals in a town far away?


He had to confide in someone.

He spoke to Wellington who also worked in his room. “I know a girl in Beirut who is just going to bed. It is evening there now, you know.”

“That so? Why don’t they get their time straightened out? I met a girl last night that’s cute as a correlator key, and kind of shaped like one. She doesn’t know yet that I work in the center and am a restricted person. I’m not going to tell her. Let her find out for herself.”

It was no good trying to tell things to Wellington. Wellington never listened. And then Anthony got a summons to Colonel Peter Cooper, which always increased his apprehension.

“Anthony,” said the colonel, “I want you to tell me if you discern anything unusual. That is really your job, to report anything unusual.

The other, the paper shuffling, is just something to keep your idle hands busy. Now tell me clearly if anything unusual has come to your notice.”

“Sir, it has.” And then he blurted it all out. “I know everybody! I know everybody in the world. I know them all in their billions, every person. It has me worried sick.”

“Yes, yes, Anthony. But tell me, have you noticed anything odd? It is your duty to tell me if you have.”

“But I have just told you! In some manner I know every person in the world. I know the people in Transvaal, I know the people in Guatemala. I know everybody.”

“Yes, Anthony, we realize that. And it may take a little getting used to. But that isn’t what I mean. Have you (besides that thing that seems out of the way to you) noticed anything unusual, anything that seems out of place, a little bit wrong?”

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