I recently read a somewhat forgotten book from noted sci-fi/fantasy author Robert Silverberg called The Stochastic Man. The plot is simple and familiar enough: a hero uses advanced probablistic math to predict the future for fun and profit (pun intended) and is shaken to encounter a genuine seer. The protagonist, Lew Nichols, is a well compensated trends advisor in New York City at the end of the twentith century. He becomes involved with a small town politian, Paul Quinn, whom Nichols helps to get elected Governor. Nichols enjoys the power and the good life of being a player in an increasingly dystopic NYC (factional terrorism is the norm, various borroughs are written off as being ungovernable). Everything in Nichol’s life is great until Martin Carvajal, a generous financial backer of the Quinn election effort, insists on a face to face meeting with Nichols. Where Nichols uses technology to forecast liekly future events, Carvajal claims to be able to see the future without error. The reader follows Nichols into ruinous obsession and madness as he tries to learn the secrets of true sight. Predictably, Nichols learns that uncertainty of the future isn’t entirely a bad thing.

Written in 1975, The Stochcastic Man paints an amusing picture of America at the end of the century. Silverberg merely extrapolated the culture of the seventies, prevasive sex, drugs and violence, to present a future world that looks somewhat like what we have now. While Silverberg’s vision isn’t entirely accurate, his description of New York terrorism is eerily prescient.

Silverberg explores the well-worn sci-fi plot device of science-enabled prognostication, not unlike the way Azimov did the Foundation series. Silverberg’s novel posits a world in which the future is immutable, like some Calvinist nightmare. What’s interesting is that the immutability of future isn’t fully tested by the protagonist. Instead, Nichols and Carvajal become puppets of their visions. It is clear that some of the predicted events that the characters see are beyond their capability to change, but other predictions are very easily avoided. It would be been interesting to see Nichols act more defiantly against the glimsed future. As the X-Files movie suggested, Fight the Future.

Silverberg’s writing style is crisp and engaging. Like many authors of that time, Silverberg pushs the boundaries of English grammar at times. Some of these experiments work, others don’t. In particular, he has an annoying habit of repeating the same word in a series for emphasis. This got irratating quickly. Also there were a few typos in my edition. Bummer. I wish Silverberg had delivered more on the apocalyptic vision of the 2004 Quinn administration. I felt a little cheated by the way Silverberg chose to resolve this problem. Nichols gets off a little too easily, I think.

If you come across The Stochastic Man, I believe you will enjoy reading it. It’s a fun summer ride.

[Original use.perl.org post and comments.]