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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 589 Response

Omniscient Databases

Bewildering Stories discussion

The Inquisitor’s Children” appears in issue 589.

Challenge 589: What is the Altar? What are the “annals”?

[Heather J. Frederick] The Altar I took to be the Altar of Judgment. The annals are a book of wisdom, or some repository of knowledge. Obviously this is some kind of database that has information about the lineage of all members of their “cult.” When the Inquisitor consults it, he determines that Hassan is Pleiade’s father.

What’s worse than a spooky fanatic who will stop at nothing to punish perceived religious slights? A spooky fanatic with an all-knowing database!

[Don Webb] I agree, Heather: the “altar” may well be an “altar of judgment” — but whose? It obviously holds some special meaning for the Inquisitor, but I don’t know what that meaning is or what purpose the altar serves.

An “all-knowing database” seems only tangentially related to the story in question. If the Inquisitor has one, why does he pick on Ibrahim, Hassan and the children, of all people? Wouldn’t he have bigger fish to fry?

Nonetheless, the idea of an omniscient database is very interesting; thanks for bringing it up! And you’re certainly right: such a device is spooky, especially in the hands of a fanatic.

Omniscient technology has moved from science fiction to mainstream literature over the past 70 years and is now widely accepted as a literal commonplace. Lately, we’ve heard that governments are compiling such things, and then that giant corporations are doing it. Or is it the other way around?

The first story I’m aware of that deals with the theme of omniscient spying is T. L. Sherred’s novella “E for Effort” (1947). Its premise is a machine that can see — but not hear — anything at any time or place. In short, a single ubiquitous surveillance camera.

The machine is developed by two young men who are somewhat down on their luck. They eventually use the machine to produce factually accurate historical films. Of course, every government in the world wants to get its hands on their machine. You can easily imagine how such a story might end.

“E for Effort” remains a major classic of science fiction, and it’s very hard to see how it could be surpassed. Orwell’s 1984 explores the ultimate dark side but takes mid-20th century technology for granted.

Many stories, novels and films have reprised the theme with variations on technology, e.g. machines that can see the future but not the past, or machines that can see only a limited part of the past, or machines that actually take you to the past but will maroon you in it if you alter it too much.

Omniscient surveillance is no longer considered science fiction; for example, the TV thriller series Person of Interest deals with practical problems involved in its everyday use. The biggest problem: How to interpret the data? An omniscient machine can report the facts, but only human beings — be they heroes or villains — can determine what those facts mean.

Other questions arise: How long before everybody has such a machine? What if it’s an app on everybody’s iPhone? What happens then? An answer is proposed in Big Beaver Is Watching You. It is by turns comical, satirical and distasteful, but it does attempt to show what the “right to privacy” really means.

To return to “The Inquisitor’s Children,” I think we can see that the Inquisitor does not need and probably does not have an omniscient database. Rather, he appears to have a hit list: Ibrahim, Hassan and the two children. Why are they on his list? Why are they of special interest to a space alien?

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Heather J. Frederick
and Bewildering Stories

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