Novel Notes: Charles Sheffield - Sight of Proteus (Novel) - Chapter 1 (Note 1)
Let's start again with a quote:
"Bey ((Behrooz Wolf)) left his apartment and worked his way over to the fastest slideway, threading through the mass of people with practiced ease. With the population over 14 billion, crowding was normal, night or day, even in the most affluent parts of the city. ... His job in the Office of Form Control was a good one - he didn't know of a better. But although he had been highly successful at it, somehow it was not completely satisfying. Always, he felt that he was waiting for he big challenge, for the problem that would stretch his abilities to their limits. Maybe this could be the one. At thirty-four, he should know what he wanted to do with the rest of his life - it was ridiculous to still be full of the heart searching of adolescence."
Lots of stuff here. We have the population theme again. Once again Charles Sheffield was pretty on target with his timelines! So 'in the 21st century' it is possible that with a cultural shift away from nationalism to a kind of Pan-Global supercountry, the novel premise might just hold. (It's a little much to think SEVERAL continental populations would hit 14 billion each.)
The 'slideway' has been proposed a few times as a solution to road congestion in light of extreme population densities. One of the most famous examples is by SF writer Robert A. Heinlein in his future history series of stories. Arguably the most iconic story dealing with slideways is the 1940 story "The Roads Must Roll". (Note 3) The basic idea is that sidewalks/roads are rolling conveyor belts, with different speed lanes stacked side by side. Instead of driving cars, the roads themselves move, so passengers simply jump on the "Slow Lane" and hop-skip their way to faster ones. While it's a formidable problem in engineering, (which is the idea for the Heinlein story), it's appealing in many ways. Assuming sufficient safety guards are in place, there would almost never be the "accidents" we have with cars today, and the capacity would be tremendous because people take up far less room than cars.
The Office of Form Control seems like a natural extension of our current trend towards increased surveillance monitoring initiated by the Decade of 9-11. Earlier SF stories might have assumed more of an Urban Decay attitude, with a Punk flavor. However as of this writing (a revision in 2012) it's becoming clear to me that we are building the machinery of government faster than entropy is wearing at it. (Note 4)
The next sentence gets into the "Soft" issues of workplace psychology. Clearly there is no hint of "budget squeezes" yet, so that for the moment "pure science" can deal with itself. The study of Workplace Productivity study is some 60 years old now, having truly launched with the work of Henry A. Landsberger and his term Hawthorne Effect in 1950.(Note 5) Combined with other psychological ideas emerging around that time period, it described that there were limits to the "Ford Simplication" of work, and that eventually more productivity resulted when modest efforts were taken to care for staff of a company. Abraham Maslow described a hierarchy of needs, and here we apparently have the low level basics covered, but Bey Wolf is itching for the top challenge that would really capstone his talents.
There's more behind the last sentence than meets the eye too. First up is a social change since this novel was written in 1977. While there certainly still are "linear careerists", the emploment world is much more ragged than 1977. The era of 'Join a company and retire there' has passed. Every year brings news of company overhauls, so that loyalty to a company is weakening as a motivating force. Progress in social psychology also indicates that it is healthy for people to shift their focus a couple of times in their working careers, to maintain some 'freshness' which subtly leads to improved life quality.
From the Bio-Science side comes some news that there may in fact be another crucial brain shift that does not occur in most people until their thirties. The key idea is that there are two (or more!) 'types' of 'intelligence', Fluid and Crystalized. Fluid means that the person can 'think on their feet' and solve novel new problems. (Often this is tested with academic style puzzles but a few tests worked with situational scenarios.) Crystalized means that the person has previously encountered a similar situation and perhaps then made some mistakes, so this time around the problem has been 'partially processed' so that the person knows better what to do. There is a bit of a clash that as people age Fluid IQ decreases, they can no longer solve everything from 'first principles', but fortunately Crystalized IQ increases, so that they can mostly cover with previous experience.
Even further, there may be a technical kind of 'neuronal shift' (Note 6), in which crucial pathways finally emerge at the 'late age' of the thirties. After all, Jesus was in his thirties when he became he Son of Man, so why can't ordinary mortals have their 20's decade to work stuff out? (Note 7)
Let's do another quote. "But there's no way to fake a Chromosome ID, and every human being is listed in the central files. Your student is telling us that he tested a liver that came from a person who never existed."
Once again we have a bit of a clash of timelines, whether we'll see this novel as "news" in 2050 or 2150. The 9-11 decade catapaulted the US Culture of Surveillance riding the Terrorist theme. That "accelerated social evolution" was the result of a concerted effect of about ten years and one trillion dollars. That kind of influence is sometimes described as a 'spike' that can throw off Futurist projections. (Note 8) The second line is simple plot suspense, whereby someone pulled some strings and managed to avoid being registered by standard governmental survey procedures.