In the Country of the Blind
by Michael F. Flynn
A book review by Mark L. Olson
Tor, 2001, 428 pp, $27.95
Tor has reissued a revised version Flynn's classic novel about Psychohistory along with his marvelous appendix on practical psychohistory.
In the Country of the Blind is one of those classic SF stories which is both a great story and a great idea. In the novel, Flynn looks at what would happen if psychohistory were a real science. Wisely, he doesn't place the story in a Galactic Empire, but in 20th century America.
In the early 1800s a group of Americans interested in science and mathematics realized that Babbage's difference engine could be used to perform the computations that would allow the use of theoretical techniques of social measurement developed in France to actually predict near-future events. The Babbage Society is set up, at first simply to study, but then as their predictive abilities are honed, to manage history. They call their science Cliometrics.
Vignettes in the novel show the Babbage Society meddling to prevent future wars -- and accidentally causing the Civil War in the process.
In modern Denver, a woman who is considering developing an old building discovers papers in one of the walls which pique her curiosity -- what could they mean? She's good with computers and soon discovers traces on the Internet which lead her into further speculations - and get her shot at.
Escaping from a second assassination attempt, she is befriended by a secret agent who claims to know and to oppose the people trying to kill her. They run, they hide, they escape - and she discovers that the agent is a member of a group which split from the Babbage Society in the late 1800s when it was taken over by power-hungry men. For over a century, they have lived together, sometimes in peaceful coexistence, and sometimes in conflict. This second society has given up meddling with history, but simply observes it (and profits by its foreknowledge).
The woman delves deeper and discovers traces of a third society which understands cliometrics. "Ah ha!" her rescuers say. "This explains why so many calculations seemed to have subtle errors -- there weren't just two sets of invisible hands tugging on history there were three!"
And, as the story unfolds, it turns out that there are considerably more than three -- all of them smugly thinking that they're masters of history, and all a bit bothered that it's not as predictable as their theories show it ought to be. Irony galore!
This is good adventure combined with great SF. If you missed it the first time out, by all means read it now.
See also my review of Eifelheim by Michael F. Flynn
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