In The Country of the Blind
A concept that has fascinated readers and writers since Asimov is that of a science that can predict the behaviour of human beings – call it psychohistory, to borrow the Asimov term. Hardly anyone with an interest in science-fiction can avoid reading the Foundation series, where a genius historian has created a plan to reshape the collapsing galactic empire and give birth to another empire.
Michael Flynn, to be fair, is slightly less ambitious. The story opens with the development of the Babbage Society, who managed to get Babbage‘s early computers to work and create a genuine science for predicting the future. The secret society, since then, has surfed the tidal waves of history in order to get rich – they‘re not out for power, as one character points out. The main plot of the story concerns the accidental discovery of the society, the discovery of sister societies existing in the world, and the struggle against one evil society. In the course of events, we learn about the complexities of history and how actions can sometimes have inevitable, yet unexpected consequences. There are many fascinating points in the book, all of which detract from a bitter truth – the story is simply not very well written.
To be fair to Flynn, the opening sections work very well. The story only goes off the rails in part three, when one of the societies is exposed to the public and another starts out trying to exterminate the remaining societies. The story is part adventure, part mystery, part detective…it never quite settles down into a single plot. I found some of the side plots more interesting than the overall plot at times, while other parts were just tedious. Apparently innocent characters turn out to work for a hornet‘s nest of different secret societies.
Frankly, I find the science a little unbelievable. Human affairs are not those of logic and reason. There‘s a joke running through the alternate history community that the original history – real history – is unrealistic. The ability to predict technological advances and even the events of Hitler‘s rise to power and spectacular fall would be well beyond any realistic science. Any number of random events would throw their predictions off beyond any hope of repair. Hitler could have gotten a compromise peace as late as 1943, or he could have been bumped off by the German military, or…the possibilities are literally endless.
History, if we accept the premise of the book, is strewn by the Babbage Society‘s failures. They started, more or less by accident, the American Civil War. (In part three, this mistake is revealed to be caused by interference from another society, with both societies unaware of the other‘s existence.) They played silly buggers with the American educational system to create a nation of sheep. One has the odd picture of a society that has two sides. The promises war between the good guys and the bad guys never really materializes. Flynn might have been making a subtle point about what happens to the best laid plans, but if so, it is really too subtle for the average reader.
Overall, the story is well worth one read. Just be prepared never to accept anything at face value.