The Cosmic Computer

Review: The Cosmic Computer, H. Beam Piper, 1963.

Published in 1963 under the far better title Junkyard Planet, this was an expansion of Piper’s “Graveyard of Dreams”. Like Four-Day Planet, it’s a juvenile novel though with a protagonist older than the usual works in that genre. While Piper did not find the writing of it quite as easy as Four-Day Planet, it was a relatively easy process for him and, to his surprise, it sold well as that other novel. 

Besides the System States War with the Federation, which John F. Carr in Typewriter Killer sees as an American Civil War analog, the main historical analogy here is the Melanesian cargo cults which sprang up after Allied armed forces left various Pacific islands after the completion of World War Two. (I wonder, before Steven Barnes’ and Larry Niven’s Dream Park, if this is the first use of cargo cults in science fiction.) 

The story is set on the planet Poictesme. The planet’s name is an allusion to one of Piper’s favorite authors, James Branch Cabell.  (In the story, we’re told that the Surromanticist Movement, which was rediscovering the “romantic writers of the pre-Atomic Era”, named a bunch of planets after literary works.)

The hero is Conn Maxwell, returning to Poictesme after a six-month voyage from Terra where he was at university studying computer science for six years. 

Things have changed on Poictesme in his absence. On the penultimate stop at the world’s capital of Storisende, Conn learns there is mass unemployment on the planet, ten men for every job. Gangs armed with shotguns and tommy guns raid merchants coming to pick things up at the spaceport. Some have also taken to piracy like Blackie Perales’ gang which even stole the spaceship Harriet Barne six months ago, and it hasn’t been seen since. The town of Storisende has offered a reward, dead or alive, for pirates in their city limits, and hasn’t been troubled since.

We learn that Poictesme was settled by a “half-piratical space rover” about 200 hundred years ago. It prospered for about a 100 years. However, competition from other planets weakened its economy. The System State War, which lasted 12 years, saw millions of Federation troops stationed there along with all their gear. However, the System States Alliance collapsed suddenly, and the troops left leaving large stocks of equipment in place (again, as the Allies did on Pacific Islands after Japan was defeated). Those who became wealthiest from the war left Poictesme. 

For the next 40 years, those who remained have eked a living from agriculture and salvaging left over war material. 

Was Poictesme a Graveyard of Dreams? No; Junkyard of Empire. The Terran Federation had impoverished a hundred planets, devastated a score, actually depopulated at least three, to keep the System States Alliance from seceding. It hadn’t been a victory. It had only been a lesser defeat. 

Awaiting Conn at the final stop of Litchfield are not only his parents and sister Flora but town mayor Kurt Fawzi. 

Fawzi is the first to speak with an urgent question for Conn: 

’Conn, what did you find out?’ he whispered. ‘Do you know where it is?’

He stammered, then saw Tom Brangwyn and Colonel Klem Zareff approaching, the older man tottering on a silver-headed cane and the younger keeping pace with him. Neither of them had been born on Poictesme. Tom Brangwyn had always been reticent about where he came from, but Hathor was a good guess. There had been political trouble on Hathor twenty years ago; the losers had had to get off-planet in a hurry to dodge firing squads. Klem Zareff never was reticent about his past. He came from Ashmodai, one of the System States planets, and he had commanded a regiment, and finally a division that had been blasted down to less than regimental strength, in the Alliance Army. He always wore a little rosette of System States black and green on his coat. 

Conn says he’ll get to that in a couple of hours and says he wants to spend a couple of hours with his family before he gives an answer. 

We learn that Poictesme’s only real export is a brandy made from a local melon. Conn notes a lot of boxes of guns and ammo about. His father, Rodney Maxwell, a salvager, says they came from the old Tenth Army Headquarters along with a lot of other stuff. There’s a small market for weapons on planets colonized right before the war. Conn realizes his father will get less for a box of tommy guns than someone will pay on Terra for a single glass of Poictesme brandy. 

At the meeting with the various men, Conn faces the hard task of delivering the truth.

Well, neither did one blast everybody’s hopes with half a dozen words, and that was what he was trying to force himself to do. He wanted to blurt out the one quick sentence and get it over with, but the words wouldn’t come out of his throat. He lowered the second drink by half; the brandy was beginning to warm him and dissolve the cold lump in his stomach. Have to go easy, though. He wasn’t used to this kind of drinking, and he wanted to stay sober enough to talk sense until he’d told them what he had to. 

It’s revealed what this is all about. Conn was sent to Earth to not only learn about computers and cybernetic theory (and he succeeded well enough to be offered a professorship on Earth) but to learn about a fabled object. 

’I was also to find out anything I could about a secret giant computer used during the War by the Third Fleet-Army Force, code-named Merlin. I went over all the records available to the public; I used your letter, Professor, and the head of our Modern History department secured me access to non-public material, some of it still classified. For one thing, I have locations and maps and plans of every Federation installation built here between 842 and 854, the whole period of the War.’ He turned to his father. ‘There are incredible things still undiscovered; most of the important installations were built in duplicate, sometimes triplicate, as a precaution against space attack. I know where all of them are.’

‘Space attack!’ Klem Zareff was indignant. ‘There never was a time we could have attacked Poictesme. Even if we’d had the ships, we were fighting a purely defensive war. Aggression was no part of our policy—‘

He interrupted: ‘Excuse me, Colonel. The point I was trying to make is that, with all I was able to learn, I could find nothing, not one single word, about any giant strategic planning computer called Merlin, or any Merlin Project.’ 

One man speaks for all their incredulity. 

’But there was a computer code-named Merlin,’ Judge Ledue was insisting, to convince himself more than anybody else. ‘Its memory-bank contained all human knowledge. It was capable of scanning all its data instantaneously, and combining, and forming associations, and reasoning with absolute accuracy, and extrapolating to produce new facts, and predicting future events, and…’ And if you’d asked such a computer, ‘Is there a God?’ it would have simply answered, “Present.’ 

(The last is an allusion to Frederic Brown’s famous “Answer”.) 

When Professor Kellton, Conn’s old teacher, asks how big Merlin would need to be, Conn says three to five million cubic feet. That means, adds banker Lester Dawes, it couldn’t have been taken off planet. However, argues Conn, it may be elsewhere: 

’We don’t know it is,’ Conn replied. ‘And we don’t know we won’t need a ship. Merlin may be on Koshchei; that’s where the components would be fabricated, and the Armed Forces weren’t hauling anything any farther than they had to. Koshchei’s only two and a half minutes away by radio; that’s practically in the next room. Look; here’s how they could have done it.’

He went on talking, about remote controls and radio transmission and positronic brains and neutrino-circuits. They believed it all, even the little they understood. They would believe anything he told them about Merlin— except the truth. 

Getting a ship will take money says Dawes. Judge Ledrue says he might be able to get some money out of the Planetary Government at Storisende. Zareff says

We don’t want Jake Vyckhoven or any of this First-Families-of-Storisende oligarchy in this at all. That’s the gang that bankrupted the Government with doles and work relief, and everybody else with worthless printing-press money after the War, and they’ve been squatting in a circle deploring things ever since. 

When the meeting is done and they are alone, Rodney tells his son he almost believed what he said, and Conn confesses the truth. Merlin is a myth. He even looked up the former commander of the Federation’s Third Force, Foxx Travis, a 112-year old man now living on Luna for its low gravity.

I was ashamed to admit anybody really believed in it. He laughed, and said, ‘Great Ghu, is that thing still around? Well, I suppose so; it was all through the Third Force during the War. Lord only knows how these rumors start among troops. We never contradicted it; it was good for morale.’ 

Rodney agrees the people who sent him to Earth wouldn’t have believed Conn. Merlin is a religion for them. 

’As soon as they find Merlin, everybody will be rich and happy, the Government bonds will be redeemed at face value plus interest, the paper money’ll be worth a hundred Federation centisols to the sol, and the leaves and wastepaper will be raked off the Mall, all by magic.’

He muttered an unprintability and laughed bitterly.

’I didn’t know you were the village atheist, Father.’

’In a religious community, the village atheist keeps his doubts to himself. I have to do business with these Merlinolators. It’s all I can do to keep Flora from antagonizing them at school.’   

We learn Flora is not a believer in Merlin nor is her fiancé, medical doctor Wade Lucas. Conn’s mother hates the idea of Merlin because she hates the idea of machines smarter than people. But talking to the group did give Conn an idea. He is serious about them getting their own spaceship to trade directly with other planets and make more money. Maybe then melon growers would be planting new land instead of plowing under what they have. He thinks the group might go for it if he can convince them that Merlin is on the nearby planet Koshchei. 

That, says Rodney, is an idea worth lying for (hence another Piper plot involving a Big Lie) even if it means lying to everyone including Flora and Conn’s mother. 

Conn has an idea where to get some money:

You heard me talk about the stuff I found out on Terra? Father, you have no idea what all there is. You remember the old Force Command Headquarters, the one the Planetary Government took over? I know where there’s a duplicate of that, completely underground. It has everything the other one had, and a lot more, because it’ll be cram-full of supplies to be used in case of a general blitz that would knock out everything on the planet. And a chain of hospitals. And a spaceport, over on Barathrum, that was built inside the crater of an extinct volcano. There won’t be any hyperships there of course, but there’ll be equipment and material. We might be able to build a ship there. And supply depots, all over the planet; none of them has ever been opened since the War. Don’t worry about financing; we have that. 

The next day Rodney and Conn tell Flora of their plan to organize a limited liability corporation which will employ a lot of the “Tramptowners”. Flora isn’t impressed though she admits it will be better than sitting in the mayor’s office talking about Merlin all the day. When his mother again expresses anxiety about smart machines, Conn assures her, as a “computerman”, that computers are just a tool.

Conn meets Brangwyn and sees the local militia is dressed in uniforms resembling System State Alliance ones. Tom tells Conn he has no idea how bad things have gotten since he has been away. On the east coast of the continent, gangs have looted cities. Black Perales used to be a planter. The unemployed become tramps or join gangs. Most of the outlaws hang out in the Badlands. Litchfield’s Home Guard, supplied with weapons donated by Rodney,  just makes sure nobody from Tramptown comes to Litchfield. The Home Guard has only been called out twice. The gangs have learned not to mess with it. It doesn’t make arrests or take prisoners. 

Conn goes to Lucas for a checkup. Lucas notes that the company should look for medical supplies which are getting to be in short supply. Conn insists to Lucas that he believes Merlin exists. At a meeting about the company, Lucas’ objections are spun by Conn to bolster Merlin’s existence and here we see manifested Piper’s personal and professional joy in lying: 

’Well, take all these elaborate preparations against space attack you were telling us about. I think Colonel Zareff, here, who served in the Alliance Army, will bear me out that such an attack was plainly impossible.’

’Zareff started to agree, then realized that he was aiding and comforting the enemy. ‘Intelligence lag,’ he said. ‘What do you expect, with General Headquarters thirty parsecs from the fighting?’

‘Yes. A computer can only process the data that’s been taped into it,’ Conn said. That was a point he wanted to ram home, as forcibly and as often as possible. ‘I suppose Merlin classified an Alliance attack on Poictesme as a low-order probability, but war is the province of chance; Clausewitz said that a thousand years ago. Foxx Travis wasn’t the sort of commander to let himself get caught, even by a very low-order probability.’

‘Well how do you explain the absence, after forty years, of any mention, in any history of the War, of Merlin? How do you get around that?’

‘I don’t have to. How do you get around it?’

‘Huh?’ Lucas was startled. ‘Yes. Stories about Merlin were all over Poictesme, all through the Third Force, even to the enemy. Say the stories were unfounded; say Merlin never existed. Yet the belief in Merlin was an important historical fact, and no history of the War gives it so much as a footnote.’ He paused for effect, then continued: ‘That can mean only one thing. Systematic suppression, backed by the whole force of the Terran Federation. A gigantic conspiracy of silence!’ 

The Litchfield Exploration & Salvage company is formed.  Fawzi argues Merlin is probably at the Force Command base Conn mentioned. Conn privately thinks if there was a Merlin, that would have been a logical place. Unfortunately, the site of the base is in the Badlands. 

A work program is instituted at Rodney’s suggestion to clean up Litchfield. (The town hasn’t even replaced the town engineer who died six years ago.)

Alone with Conn, Rodney suggests his son keep quiet and let Kurt and Zareff have their “duplicate Force Command”. That’s why he made Conn a mere stockholder in the company without office. They will go to Barathrum and grab the Federation’s abandoned spaceport and see if they can build a spaceship. Rodney has plenty of surplus contragravity vehicles as well as earthmoving equipment and weapons and repair-robots. 

The company comes across an old Army Transport, the City of Asgard. Zareff expresses the suspicion that Lucas, from off-planet, is a Federation spy.  (We learn that, on the subject of Federation spies, Zareff is a bit crazy.) 

’Uhuh. I suppose, in Klem’s boots, I’d be just as crazy as he is,’ Rodney Maxwell said. ‘One minute, he had a wife and two children in Kindelburg, on Ashmodai, and the next minute Kindelburg was a puddle of radioactive slag.’

‘That was in ’51, wasn’t it? I read about it,’ Conn said.

’It was a famous victory.’ That was from a poem, too. 

(Piper is alluding to Robert Southey’s “The Battle of Blenheim”.)

The City of Asgard, now rechristened the Lester Dawes, goes to the remains of the Third Fleet-Army Force Command which is a hollowed-out mesa in the Badlands. 

They do find a base there (which Conn reconnoiters remotely using robots) with a large computer which Fawzi thinks is Merlin, but Conn tells him it’s too small for that. He even finds what seems to be the remains of smashed glasses from a toast Foxx held before leaving. There is media interest in the find, and, also, several parties of other prospectors looking for Merlin entering the zone nearby.

Rodney contemplates putting out a rumor that other bases are elsewhere on the planet which will divert other prospectors away. 

The stock of the company goes up. Dawes cashes out and goes back to his bank. The resulting stock market speculation does not please Conn’s mother. The various armed prospecting groups take to fighting with each other, and that brings the Planetary Government’s attention. They start arming a couple of mothballed transport craft. Zareff thinks some of the prospecting companies are Federation spies. They may be waiting for the company to find Merlin and jump the claim. 

Zareff suggests going to Barathrum and getting some of the heavy weapons there. When the company arrives, there are signs of being occupied (radiation from a power plant). 

It turns out to be inhabited by hostiles who have been there long enough to have its detection system and defense batteries operating. Infiltrating the base, they find slave laborers there: the crew of the missing ship Harriet Barne.

The ship’s engineer, Yves Jacquemont, says the place is occupied by Black Perales gang: 

’He’s crazy!’ Jacquemont swore. ‘Paranoid; megalomaniac. He talks of organizing all the pirates and outlaws on the planet into one band and making himself king. He’s heard that there are Space Navy superweapons on Koshchei— I suppose there are, at that— and he wants to get a lot of planetbusters and hellburners and annihilators.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Captain Nichols and I were going to fix up something that’d blow the Harriet Barne up as soon as he got her out of atmosphere.’ 

Conn also meets the attractive — if grungy from captivity — Sylvie, Jacquemont’s daughter. 

With the help of using some robots directed by Conn, Zareff takes the base. Captain Nichols tells them they may get prize money for the Harriet Barne. In a later meeting with the ship’s owners, the company is offered the Harriet Barne. The pirates had begun work to convert the ship to an interplanetary ship (which is what the company wants) and wrecked it. The ship’s owners don’t want an interplanetary ship. And, from a moral duty for rescuing their crew, they sell it cheap. 

A couple of more related companies, shipping firms, are formed by the group. Tramptown is a peaceful place now. A bill is introduced in the planet’s parliament to nationalize Merlin when it’s found. It’s supported by a minority of the population. 

As a sign of decline in the last few years, Jacquemont notes there once must have been hundreds of interplanetary ships once. Perhaps they were used in evacuation during the war, but it would have been impractical to convert them to interstellar ships.

Koshchei is a rusting world with a surface of iron oxide and an atmosphere of carbon dioxide.

Men went to Koshchei; they worked out of doors in oxygen helmets, and lived in airtight domes and generated their own oxygen. There had been mines, and smelters, and blast furnaces and steel mills. And there had been shipyards, where hyperships up to three thousand feet had been built. They had all been abandoned when the War had ended; they were waiting there, on an empty, lifeless planet. Some of them had been built by the Third Fleet-Army Force during the War; most of them dated back almost a century before that, to the original industrial boom. All of them could be claimed under the Abandoned Property Act of 867, since all had been taken over by the Federation, and the original owners, or their heirs, compensated. 

Rodney has hired a private detective agency to keep track of things and learns another ship is planning to take up interplanetary trips. They don’t know where it’s going. Maybe Koshchei, so they had better hurry. Nichols and Jacquemont are part of the Harriet Barne’s crew. Conn confesses to them he doesn’t really expect to find Merlin on the planet, but he does hope to find ships. 

They do find a large complex on the planet including a half-constructed ship. Conn proposes they bring some of the unemployed men on Poictesme to the planet and start working on it. Conn helps put down a robot “mutiny” by reprogramming the left-over robots for the desired tasks.

When he returns to Poictesme, Conn finds out from Sylvie, who has been staying with Conn’s mother, that the latter is concerned all of her husband’s recent high-flying companies are going to collapse in a “smash”. For his part, Conn thinks the leftover facilities on Koshchei will employ many people.

Rodney wants to buy an interstellar spaceline. Fawzi isn’t interested in that. He thinks Merlin is on Poictesme. 

In a discussion with Fawzi and Judge Ledue, Ledue says,

’With Merlin, we could set up a legal code and a system of jurisprudence that would give everybody absolute justice,’ Judge Ledue said.

As if absolute justice wasn’t the last thing anybody in his right senses would want; a robot-judge would have the whole planet in jail inside a month. 

More cynicism from Piper about politics.

Fawzi is still convinced Merlin is in the Force Command facility. Conn agrees to go and take another look at the facility. There he meets a new character: 

’Who is this Leibert?’ Conn asked. ‘Somebody mentioned him this morning, I think.’

‘He joined us after you left, Conn,’

Dolf Kellton said. ‘He’s a clergyman from Morven. No regular denomination; he has a sect of his own.’

’Yah, he would!’ Klem Zareff rumbled. ‘Pious fraud!’

‘He’s really a good man, Conn; Klem’s prejudiced. He says we ought to use Merlin to show us the true nature of God, and how to live in accordance with the Divine Will. He says Merlin can teach us a new religion.’

A new religion, based on Merlin; that would be good. And then the fanatics who thought Merlin was the Devil would start a holy war to wipe out the servants of Satan, and with all the combat equipment that was lying around on this planet.… For the first time since this business started, he began to feel really frightened. 

Conn has a conversation with Leibert: 

’Bless you, young man! It is to you alone that we owe our thanks that we are about to find the Great Computer. Every sapient being in the Galaxy will honor your name for a thousand years.’

‘Well, I hadn’t counted on quite that much, Mr. Leibert. If it’ll only help a few of these people to make a decent living I’ll be satisfied.’

Leibert shook his head sadly. ‘You think entirely in material terms, young man,’ he reproved. ‘Forget these things; acquire the higher spiritual values. The Great Computer must not be degraded to such uses; we should let it show us how to lift ourselves to a high spiritual plane.…’

It went on like that, after they went down to Foxx Travis’s— now Fawzi’s— office . . . The man was a lunatic; he made Fawzi’s office gang look frigidly sane. Furthermore, he was an ignoramus. He had no idea what a computer could or couldn’t do. Anybody who could build a computer of the sort he thought Merlin was wouldn’t need it, he would be God.

As he talked, Conn began to be nagged by an odd sense of recognition. He’d seen this Carl Leibert before, somewhere, and somehow he was sure that the long white hair and the untrimmed beard weren’t part of the picture. That puzzled him. 

And that’s more of Piper’s characteristic cynicism about religion.

Leibert even insists that it was revealed in a dream to him that Merlin is inside the butte, and that, during the war, it was communicated with by radio. Zareff thinks Leibert knows where Merlin is and is working for a competitor. 

Work is begun on a ship at Koshchei.

Conn hears with horror the growing politicization concerning Merlin.

There was a growing sentiment in favor of turning the entire Government over to the computer as soon as it was found. To his horror, Conn heard himself named as chairman of a committee that should be set up to operate it. The moderates, who had merely wanted Merlin used in an advisory capacity, were dropping out; the agitation was coming from extremists who wanted Merlin to be the whole Government, and now the extremists were developing an extreme wing of their own, who called themselves Cybernarchists and started wearing colored-shirt uniforms and greeting each other with an archaic stiff-arm salute, and the words, ‘Hail Merlin!’

And the followers of the gospel-shouter on the west coast were now cropping up all over the mainland, and on the continent of Acaire to the north, and another cult, non-religious, was convinced that Merlin was a living machine, with conscious intelligence of its own and awesome psi-powers, a sort of super-Golem, which, if found and awakened, would enslave the whole Galaxy. Fortunately, these two hated each other as venomously as both did the Cybernarchists, and spent most of their energies attacking each other’s meetings. The news-services were beginning to publish casualty lists, some heavy enough for outpost fighting between a couple of regular armies.

One thing, it helped the employment situation. Everybody was hiring mercenaries.

‘But what,’ Conn asked, ‘are the sane people doing?’

‘You ought to know,’ his father told him. ‘I suspect that you have all of them on Koshchei now.’” 

Conn requests some digging equipment for the Force Command site, and Zareff wants Rodney’s detective firm (now under exclusive contract) to investigate Leibert. Conn says he knows Leibert is a Federation spy, but why has his father contracted with a detective agency? Because he’s found bugs in his offices. 

Chaos starts to break out again on Poictesme: 

There was street-fighting in Storisende between the Cybernarchists and Government troops. There was a pitched battle in the west between the Armageddonists (Merlin-is-Satan) and the Human Supremacy League (Merlin-is-the-Golem), with heavy losses and claims of victory on both sides. President Vyckhoven proclaimed planet-wide martial law, and then discovered that he had nothing to enforce it with. 

A very large cache of interplanetary ships is found on Koshchei. However, that discovery may cause a stock market crash on Poictesme. Rodney buys up a lot of stock to prevent that. 

Conn and men from Koshchei head back to Storisende which is threatened by a well-armed mob that the Planetary Government can’t control. Lucas has figured out what Conn is up to and approves though his fiancé doesn’t believe it. 

Rodney fears a financial crash worse than the one after the War. His offices have also been burglarized, and his secretary was kidnapped. She was found days later wandering about. A mind-probe had been used on her. 

Federation Prime-Minister Murchison thinks the whole Merlin hunt is an anti-Federation plot. The chaos could be fueled by the old financial interests on planet. All the various companies  Rodney is involved with meet, and he’s accused of fraud. Brangwyn suspects Leibert may be involved with the secretary’s kidnappers. 

News that Merlin may be on Koshchei reinflates the stock market. 

(Spoilers ahead)

Then a startling announcement happens. The detective agency found, on a neighboring planet that fabricated computer parts, a note about PROJECT MERLIN in documents. It’s just a reference to a court-martial of its personnel, but it’s the first documented mention of Merlin.  Also, at Force Command, Fawzi and his men found a shaft going down in the mesa. Maybe, suggests Rodney, Travis lied because Merlin was too dangerous to find. The detective agency also found out that the Human Supremacy League was getting money via Murchison. The Armageddonists may have been the one to mind-probe the secretary. 

Conn suggests bringing in some specialized cutting equipment from Koshchei to uncover Merlin.  Leibert is ecstatic the Great Computer has been found. He’s moved into the old chaplain’s quarters on a lower level and keeps his door locked. 

Work begins on digging up the mesa though it takes longer than expected. Conn meets with Flora. She now knows about Conn’s original plan, but she is still unsure if Merlin really exists (and her mother still fears the idea of such a computer). Conn says he himself doesn’t know what to think about Merlin anymore. 

A news story about Merlin from Earth has Travis responding to the Merlin hunt and stating he told Conn it was a rumor. The truth has been revealed at last about Conn’s deception. 

But there might be a Merlin after all. Conn realizes where he has seen Leibert before. He was Travis’ aide-de-camp: General Shanlee. 

In Storisende, Armageddonists and Human Supremacy Leaguers battle each other and government forces. Shanlee is detained and his room searched. A bomb is found, a “vest-pocket thermonuclear” which Shanlee would have had to detonate in place — a suicide bomb.

Conn threatens to use a mind-probe on Shanlee despite Judge Ledue’s objection. Shanlee thinks Conn is bluffing, but Conn tells him they found one on site. 

Shanlee asks Conn if he really thinks the small computer facility at Force Command is Merlin

He turned to Kurt Fawzi. ‘You always claimed that Merlin was here in Force Command. You had it backward. Force Command is inside Merlin.’

’What do you mean, Conn?’

‘The walls; the fifty-foot walls, shielded inside and out. Merlin— the circuitry, the memory-bank, the relays, everything— was installed inside them. What’s up above is only what was needed to operate the computer. Isn’t that true, General?’

Shanlee had stopped his derisive laughter. He sat on the edge of the cot, tensing as though for a leap at Conn’s throat.  . . .

’You know, we were really caught off balance when the War ended. It even caught Merlin short; information lag, of course. The whole Alliance caved in all at once. Well, we fed Merlin all the data available, and analyzed the situation. Then we did something we really weren’t called upon to do, because that was policy-planning and wasn’t our province, but we were going to move an occupation army into System States planets, and we didn’t want to do anything that would embarrass the Federation Government later. We fed Merlin every scrap of available information on political and economic conditions everywhere in the Federation, and set up a long-term computation of the general effects of the War.

‘The extrapolation was supposed to run five hundred years in the future. It didn’t. It stopped, at a point a trifle over two hundred years from now, with a statement that no computation could be made further because at that point the Terran Federation would no longer exist.’

The others, who had taken chairs facing him, looked at him blankly.

‘No more Federation?’ Judge Ledue asked incredulously. “Why, the Federation, the Federation.…’

The Federation would last forever. Anybody knew that. There just couldn’t be no more Federation.

‘That’s right,’ Shanlee said. ‘We had trouble believing it, too. Remember, we were Federation officers. The Federation was our religion. Just like patriotism used to be, back in the days of nationalism. We checked for error. We made detail analyses. We ran it all over again. It was no use.

’In two hundred years, there won’t be any Terran Federation. The Government will collapse, slowly. The Space Navy will disintegrate. Planets and systems will lose touch with Terra and with one another. You know what it was like here, just before the War? It will be like that on every planet, even on Terra. Just a slow crumbling, till everything is gone; then every planet will start sliding back, in isolation, into barbarism.’

‘Merlin predicted that?’ Kurt Fawzi asked, shocked. If Merlin said so, it had to be true.

Shanlee nodded. ‘So we ran another computation; we added the data of publication of this prognosis. You know, Merlin can’t predict what you or I would do under given circumstances, but Merlin can handle large-group behavior with absolute accuracy. If we made public Merlin’s prognosis, the end would come, not in two centuries but in less than one, and it wouldn’t be a slow, peaceful decay; it would be a bomb-type reaction. Rebellions. Overthrow of Federation authority, and then revolt and counterrevolt against planetary authority. Division along sectional or class lines on individual planets. Interplanetary wars; what we fought the Alliance to prevent. Left in ignorance of the future, people would go on trying to make do with what they had. But if they found out that the Federation was doomed, everybody would be trying to snatch what they could, and end by smashing everything. Left in ignorance, there might be a planet here and there that would keep enough of the old civilization to serve, in five or so centuries, as a nucleus for a new one. Informed in advance of the doom of the Federation, they would all go down together in the same bloody shambles, and there would be a Galactic night of barbarism for no one knows how many thousand years.’

‘We don’t want anything like that to happen!’ Tom Brangwyn said, in a frightened voice.

‘Then pull everybody out of here and blow the place up, Merlin along with it,’ Shanlee said.

‘No! We’ll not do that!’ Fawzi shouted. ‘I’ll shoot the man dead who tries it!’

‘Why didn’t you people blow Merlin up?’ Conn asked.

‘We’d built it; we’d worked with it. It was part of us, and we were part of it. We couldn’t. Besides, there was a chance that it might survive the Federation; when a new civilization arose, it would be useful. We just sealed it. There were fewer than a hundred of us who knew about it. We all took an oath of secrecy. We spent the rest of our lives trying to suppress any mention of Merlin or the Merlin Project. You have no idea how shocked both General Travis and I were when you told us that the story was still current here on Poictesme. And when we found that you’d been getting into the records of the Third Force, I took the next ship I could, a miserable little freighter, and when I landed and found out what was happening, I contacted Murchison and scared the life out of him with stories about a secessionist conspiracy. All this Armageddonist, Human Supremacy, Merlin-is-the-Devil, stuff that’s been going on was started by Murchison. And he succeeded in scaring Vyckhoven with the Cybernarchists, too.’

‘This computation on the future of the Federation is still in the back-work file?’ Conn asked.

’If you decide to destroy Merlin, you’ll have to decide to kill me, first,’ Kurt Fawzi said, his voice deadly calm. ‘You won’t do it while I’m alive.’

‘But, Kurt,’ Ledue expostulated. ‘You know why these people here at Storisende are rioting? It’s because they’ve lost hope, because they’re afraid and desperate. The Terran Federation is something everybody feels they have to have, for peace and order and welfare. If people thought it was breaking up, they’d be desperate, too. They’d do the same insane things these people here on this planet are doing. General Shanlee was right. Don’t destroy the hope that keeps them sane.’ 

Just then a message comes in from Koshchei colony threatening to nuke Poictesme if Force Command is or the government building in Storisende is attacked or Rodney not released from jail.

Rodney is released but kept in protective custody lest he be attacked. 

Eventually, Rodney visits Force Command and talks to Conn about Merlin. 

‘Do you believe that?’ his father asked.

‘Don’t you? You were in Storisende when the Travis statement came out; you saw how people acted. If this story gets out, people will be acting the same way on every planet in the Federation. Not just places like Poictesme; planets like Terra and Baldur and Marduk and Odin and Osiris. It would be the end of everything civilized, everywhere.’

‘Why didn’t they use Merlin to save the Federation?’

‘It’s past saving. It’s been past saving since before the War. The War was what gave it the final shove. If they could have used Merlin to reverse the process, they wouldn’t have sealed it away.’

‘But you know, Conn, we can’t destroy Merlin. If we did, the same people who went crazy over the Travis statement would go crazy all over again, worse than ever. We’d be destroying everything we planned for, and we’d be destroying ourselves. That bluff young Macquarte and Luther Chen-Wong and Bill Nichols made wouldn’t work twice. And if they weren’t bluffing.…’” 

Conn suggests asking Merlin if it should be destroyed, to let the computer put itself on trial.

News of Merlin’s discovery is released.

Confident that Merlin would decree its own destruction, Shanlee gave his parole; the others accepted it. The newsmen were admitted to the circular operating room and encouraged to send out views and descriptions of everything. Then the lift controls were reinstalled, the lid was put back on top, and the only access to the room was through the office below. The entrance to this was always guarded by Zarel’s soldiers or Brangwyn’s police.

There were only a score of them who could be let in on the actual facts. For the most part, they were the same men who had been in Fawzi’s office on the afternoon of Conn’s return, a year and a half ago. A few others— Anse Dawes, Jerry Rivas, and five computermen Conn had trained on Koshchei— had to be trusted. Conn insisted on letting Sylvie Jacquemont in on the revised Awful Truth About Merlin. They spent a lot of their time together, in Travis’s office, for the most part sunk in dejection.

They had finally found Merlin; now they must lose it. They were trying to reconcile themselves and take comfort from the achievement, empty as it was. They could see no way out. If Merlin said that Merlin had to be destroyed, that was it. Merlin was infallible. Conn hated the thought of destroying that machine with his whole being, not because it was an infallible oracle, but because it was the climactic masterpiece of the science he had spent years studying. To destroy it was an even worse sacrilege to him than it was to the Merlinolators. And Rodney Maxwell was thinking of the public effects. What the Travis statement had started would be nothing by comparison.

’You know, we can keep the destruction of Merlin a secret,’ Conn said. ‘It’ll take some work down at the power plant, but we can overload all the circuits and burn everything out at once.’ He turned to Shanlee. ‘I don’t know why you people didn’t think of that.’

Shanlee looked at him in surprise. ‘Why, now that you mention it, neither do I,’ he admitted. ‘We just didn’t.’

‘Then,’ Conn continued, ‘we can tinker up something in the operating room that’ll turn out what will look like computation results. As far as anybody outside ourselves will know, Merlin will still be solving everybody’s problems. We’ll do like any fortuneteller; tell the customer what he wants to believe and keep him happy.’

More lies; lies without end. And now he’d have a machine to do his lying for him, a dummy computer that wouldn’t compute anything. And all he’d wanted, to begin with, had been a ship to haul some brandy to where they could get a fair price for it.

Peace had returned. At first, it had been a frightened and uneasy peace. The bluff— he hoped that was what it had been— by the Koshchei colonists had shocked everybody into momentary inaction. In the twenty-four hours that had followed, the forces of sanity and order had gotten control again. . . . The majority relaxed, ashamed of their hysterical reaction. As for the Cybernarchists and Armageddonists and Human Supremacy Leaguers, government and private police, vastly augmented by volunteers, speedily rounded up the leaders; their followers dispersed, realizing that Merlin was nothing but a lot of dials and buttons

The question is finally put to Merlin: 

The second information-request went in: What is the best course to be followed under these conditions by the people of Poictesme? It had taken some time to phrase that in symbols a computer would find comprehensible; the answer, at great length, emerged in two minutes eight seconds. Retranslating it took five hours.

In the beginning and for the first ten years, it was, almost item for item, the Maxwell Plan. Export trade, specialized in luxury goods. Brandies and wines, tobacco; a long list of other exportable commodities, and optimum markets. Reopening of industrial plants; establishment of new industries. Attainment of economic self-sufficiency. Cultural self-sufficiency; establishment of universities, institutes of technology, research laboratories. Then the Maxwell Plan became the Merlin Plan; the breakup of the Federation was a fact that entered into the computation. Build-up of military strength to resist aggression by other planetary governments. Defense of the Gartner Trisystem. Lists of possible aggressor planets. Revival of interstellar communications and trade; expeditions, conquest and re-education of natives.…

‘We can’t begin to handle this without Merlin,’ Conn said. ‘If that means blowing up the Federation, let it blow. We’ll start a new one here.’

‘No; if there’s a general, violent collapse of the Federation, it’ll spread to Poictesme,’ Shanlee told him.

’Let’s ask Merlin the big question.’ Merlin took a good five minutes to work that one out. The question had to include a full description of Merlin, and a statement of the information which must be kept secret. The answer was even more lengthy, but it was summed up in the first word: Falsification.

‘So Merlin’s got to be a liar, too, along with the rest of us!’ Sylvie cried. ‘Conn, you’ve corrupted his morals!’

The rest of it was false data which must be taped in, and lists of corrections which must be made in evaluating any computation into which such data might enter. There was also a statement that, after fifty years, suppression of the truth and circulation of falsely optimistic statements about the Federation would no longer have any importance.

‘Well, that’s it,’ Conn said. ‘Merlin thought himself out of a death sentence.’”

With Merlin, Piper gives us sort of a negative version of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Merlin, like Hari Seldon, predicts a new dark age. But Piper doesn’t give us a Foundation that will keep knowledge or shorten that dark age. We know, from both this story and other Piper stories, especially Space Viking, Merlin doesn’t shorten the coming collapse.

At novel’s end, Shanlee and Zareff become friends with the former to head Project Merlin (presumably putting out fake messages). The economy is booming with the tramps moving off world to factory jobs. Lucas and Flora get married. Sylvie proposes to Conn to make it a double wedding with his sister’s.

Rodney is going to go to Aditya which is mentioned in Piper’s “A Slave Is a Slave” and “Ministry of Disturbance”.  Fawzi is to be a candidate for Planetary Governor. (Actually, Rodney nominates Fawzi on the spur of the moment fearing he will be nominated.)

As I’ve noted before, many Piper stories involve a climax with legal proceedings. It’s interesting that Piper’s juveniles focus more on economic intrigue than legal battles.

It’s one of my favorite Piper novels for the characters which Piper keeps well-defined, treasure hunt, action, and air of decay, despondency, and desperation.

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