After his younger brother was murdered, child prodigy Randall “Pete” Armstrong tries to understand how it happened, how a convicted criminal could be unsafe but paroled. Over the subsequent decade, while completing an education that includes early entry to Harvard, the idea of creating a way to definitively know if recidivism is likely ticks away in the back of his head, and Pete decides to create an infallible truth machine.
This summation does no justice to the complex and riveting story that is The Truth Machine – the narrative, recounted by a journalistically-programmed computer, opens twenty-five years after the launch of Pete’s truth machine, at the beginning of a tribunal hearing into the fraud, and worse crimes, committed by Armstrong. After giving the reader a little background, it opens with a chronological account of the creator of the most revolutionary invention in human history.
Each chapter opens with a snapshot of life in that time – political events, health recommendations, the effects of new laws – that become more speculative the further into the future they occur; the timing of these events is partly determined by the plot, but others (like the banning of margarine because of the health effects of trans-fats, or the increasing prominence of the Unitarian church) were based on aggregate estimates from SF writers and scientists. Both the inventions foreseen (like VOIP) and not (widespread mobile phone uptake) are interesting.
The Truth Machine is equally driven by character and plot; the former relies heavily on the persona of Pete, a driven, honest, blindingly intelligent man still trying to atone for the last words he said to his baby brother. As he’s drawn ever deeper into law breaking due to seemingly unviable alternatives, we see a brilliant example of justifying the means for the ends. When alternatives are revealed the reader, along with Pete, is stunned that these weren’t seen.
This is easily the tenth time I’ve read The Truth Machine, one of my all-time favourite books. Published in 1996, each time Halperin’s world and ours is a little further apart, and each time I’m drawn anew into the transformative idea of an invention that would make getting away with dishonesty impossible. Halperin looks at how it would change aspects of culture from government to trade negotiation, relationships and finance. He’s also created a fairly utopian future – not only are people necessarily more honest but among other changes: prisoners are only released when they pass literacy and numeracy tests, prisons focus on fitness for life outside and rehabilitation rather than punishment, but some crimes are punished capitally, and health insurance is freely available regardless of pre-existing conditions. I find something new in The Truth Machine on each reading, and this time was no exception – Alex