In the Country of the Blind, Michael Flynn

Tor, 2001, 549 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34498-X

In the history of the Science Fiction genre, few notions have captured readers’ imagination as much as psychohistory – the idea that given a sufficient number of people to study, sociology becomes as deterministic as classical physics. In Isaac Asimov’s famous Foundation series, political movements can be described using mathematical equations, and a savvy psychohistorian can predict the future of the empire by running a few statistical models. It’s a seductive idea in part given SF readers’ fondness for hard science and cold equations, but also because it gives validity to SF’s pretencions of predicting the future. Why, yes, a sufficiently clever writer, well-versed in history and sciences, can say what’s likely to happen: Victory for Hugo Gernsback’s spiritual inheritors.

So it shouldn’t be surprising to see other writers jumping on the bandwagon from time to time. Michael Flynn (best known for the Hard-SF Stars series) did so in 1990 with In the Country of the Blind, a book now revised and republished with a nonfiction appendix. In this novel, ex-reporter, real-estate developer and all-around competent woman Sarah Beaumont gradually discovers the existence of a secret society, dating back more than a hundred years, that has figured out the elementary rules of “cliology”. Using calculating machines derived from Charles Babbage’s Analytical engine, this “Babbage Society” has spent decades subtly manipulating history to its own purposes. But now that Beaumont knows too much, well, she’ll have to be silenced…

I really, really wanted to love this novel and for the first hundred pages I truly did. Despite some too-hasty plotting and early characterization problems, In the Country of the Blind efficiently sets up a secret history in which history is silly putty in the hands of a few master manipulators. The means of The Babbage Society’s developments are convincingly portrayed (Chapter 1-IV features a wonderful discovery of an attic filled with analytical engines) and the story steadily moves forward.

It’s such a shame, then, that the book ends at this point. Oh, sure, there are twists and turns, revelations and betrayals, chases and gunfights for the rest of the book’s duration. But as a science-fiction novel, In the Country of the Blind essentially ends as Beaumont is welcomed into the society she discovered. The two or three refinements (that there are more than one such society, and that cliology just doesn’t work as well as one would think) are obvious from the get-go, and they’re not handled nearly as efficiently as they should have been. No, after page 101, In the Country of the Blind devolves into a standard-issue thriller in which the various parties could be just about anything. Replace “cliologists” by “industrial spies”, or “Nazi revivalists” and this novel wouldn’t change much.

And that’s a real shame given how, from time to time, we get a glimpse into cliology’s interest in a Science Fiction setting. The idea that the future is predictable and that we can influence it if we know where to act gives a realistic framework to exploit two of SF’s traditional obsessions: Given solid predictions and “inflexion points”, isn’t acting on these opportunities a form of preemptive time-travel? Isn’t this also a way to exploit the concept of alternate realities without actually alternating realities? Readers of this novel will be allowed a moment or two of intellectual vertigo as past, present and future, real or alternate, all merge into a solid whole of speculation.

What’s even more interesting is that since Foundation‘s publication in 1943, we are finding out that cliology may not be completely fanciful. Flynn gives out tons of examples in the non-fiction appendix that follows the book (a case of the appendix being more interesting that the previous novel), but you don’t have to look far elsewhere to find out how social sciences are becoming predictable. Jared Diamond did a lot to quantify history in his best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel. Political scientists are starting to understand how government falls or evolve given their social contexts. Wall Street is leading the way in building models to predict the evolution of markets, trends and economic activity. Even governments and corporations are getting in to the act with “strategic analysis” units.

If Flynn wants to use cliology as an excuse for a standard chases-and-gunfire thriller, fine. But as a Science Fiction novel, In the Country of the Blind wastes its considerable potential. It doesn’t make it a bad novel… just a very disappointing, very ordinary one.

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