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This was a short story I read a long, long time ago. I think I first read it no later than 1986, and I may have run across it again sometime in the 1990s. It was written in English, reprinted in an anthology which I found in a public library in Indiana, and I have no idea who wrote it. It did not appear to be part of a series. I remember the plot quite well. I don't think it was by one of the "Big Names" of 20th Century Science Fiction, or else I probably would have run across it again in collections of their shorter works.

Plot Points

  1. The protagonist was a bureaucrat in the headquarters building of one of the departments of a huge government. I believe he worked on Earth, but I'm not sure whether the government's jurisdiction was limited to this solar system, or stretched across several other human-colonized worlds. (I do know that several such worlds existed in other systems, and I think some of them were subject to the Earth-based government, but I'm not sure of that.)

  2. His job is basically just one of sorting out mail -- documents which other people wrote, and other people entirely will act upon (if any action is necessary). There's at least one scene which gives us some detail on how various documents come down through pneumatic tubes to his desk, and then the hero needs to glance at each one and figure out which of half a dozen tubes he should stuff it into so that the document is then passed down to the appropriate subsection of the next level down in the bureaucratic hierarchy. There is even a "Sorry, Wrong Number" tube which means a document was wrongly sent to him and needs to go back upstairs to be sorted all over again. There is no suggestion that any sort of computer is involved in this sorting process. (Which, to our modern eyes, could be taken to mean that these "sorting out the paperwork" jobs, in a futuristic society, were sheer makework so that many thousands of people had "good steady jobs" which otherwise would not have existed? But I don't think that's exactly the point the author was trying to make.)

  3. For several years, various taxes, regulations, huge budgets, etc., had been justified by regular reports of ongoing warfare on and around one of those colonized worlds. (Or possibly between two of those worlds.) Somehow, the protagonist becomes convinced that the so-called war is nothing more than a hoax to justify things which the common people might otherwise refuse to tolerate. A perpetual "state of emergency," as it were.

  4. In other words, the "war" is not just something that's being exaggerated in the news media, or unnaturally prolonged after it should have ended; it simply never happened in the first place! The protagonist becomes convinced that if he can travel to the planet in question, he will find that everyone is peaceful and prosperous, and they probably don't even know that back on Earth there are regular updates about how the "war" is going.

  5. There was some interstellar travel between Earth and the "war zone" planet, but it was very hard for a civilian to get a ticket aboard one of the ships headed in the right direction. Somehow, the protagonist makes it. I don't recall the details, such as whether he smuggled himself aboard inside a big box in the cargo hold, or what. (He may have used his knowledge of the bureaucracy to insert phony documents into a pipeline for his own benefit, but that's more of a guess than a memory.) But he finally finds himself on the "war zone planet" and takes lots of pictures of all the happy, healthy, well-fed citizens casually strolling down the streets of the capital city, in broad daylight, obviously not the least bit concerned about bombing raids or any other dire threat. The protagonist is convinced that he will be a hero when he makes it back to Earth and somehow publishes his photos, thereby showing everybody that their government has been lying through its teeth for years.

  6. He makes it back to Earth with the evidence, but his plan collapses. The Powers That Be had somehow become aware of his self-assigned mission soon after he left, and had quickly replaced Hoax A with Hoax B. It was announced with great fanfare that the old war was finally over, and everybody on the "war zone planet" was very happy about the local return to normalcy. Unfortunately, a new war, in a much more remote location (in terms of travel time from Earth) had then broken out, and the old state of emergency, with all those "temporary wartime restrictions," etc., would need to continue for a bit longer. Someone explains all this to the protagonist in a face-to-face conversation at the end of the story. I don't recall what happens to him after that. I don't think anyone was planning to execute him, though -- perhaps just transfer him to a different job where he wouldn't have access to whatever documents had made him suspicious of the hoax?

So the story had a downer ending that suggested "one man can't beat the system when it is working hard to sell a Big Lie to the masses," which is not my favorite way for a story about government corruption to end, but I find myself curious about it now. Does anyone recognize this from my description?

  • 2
    Rings a faint bell, and sounds like something Phillip K. Dick could have written, but I can't place it beyond that. – Todd Wilcox Apr 3 at 18:54
  • Thematically similar to "Homeworld" by Harry Harrison, but it differs greatly when considered against you specific points. Thought I'd mention it anyway as it might help find a "Books like.." list.goodreads.com/book/show/710831.Homeworld – lolrus Apr 4 at 9:42
  • @ToddWilcox I'd guess the PKD story you're thinking of is The Defenders but while similar it doesn't match the details described in this question. – John Rennie Apr 4 at 10:03
3

Answering my own question: "Passport to Sirius," by Robert Silverberg. First published in If (April 1958).

My recollection of the plot was pretty good, considering I hadn't read it in decades, but I was mixed up on the protagonist's motivation. His name was David Carman, and, as the story began, he believed the wartime propaganda about how terribly things were going in the Sirian War, and how this was driving up prices on consumer goods right here on Earth.

As a result, Carman used his position in the bureaucracy of the Confederation Passport Office to get himself the necessary passport, and special authorization (with a forged signature) to let him travel to the Sirius system so that he could enlist in a local military unit and bravely risk his life to help bring this ugly war to an end. He spent most of his savings on a ticket for a trip that took "three weeks of steady hyperdrive travel."

Then he was flabbergasted to discover the war was just a hoax, and that the local citizens didn't even know they were supposedly living in fear of their lives. This was part of a plan to secretly regulate the economy back home.

Carman did make it back to Earth, full of righteous indignation, with photographic evidence that everybody was doing fine in the Sirius system, but he was soon arrested, and -- as I remembered -- was told that the old war was officially over, but a new war was breaking out, much further away.

"You killed off Sirius because you were afraid I'd expose it," Carman said accusingly. "And now you're starting up a new one."

Veller nodded smugly. "Quite. The Great Andromeda Nebula happens to be 900,000 light-years away. The round trip, even by hyperdrive, takes some twenty years."

Note: A couple of days after I posted the question, I found the experience of writing out everything I remembered had gradually stirred up some further memories. I began to feel almost certain that I had first read this story in the same library book which was my first exposure to Robert Silverberg's story about someone dumping a bunch of memory-suppressing drugs into the San Francisco water supply, thereby causing great confusion (and in some cases actually making people feel better about themselves). I tracked down the title of the latter story -- "How It Was When the Past Went Away" -- and then I used ISFDB to see a list of anthologies which had collected that one. I eventually decided the book I read in the mid-1980s must have been an all-Silverberg collection: World of a Thousand Colors, and the story I'd been asking about must have been "Passport to Sirius." (Then I waited for a while in case someone else dug up the right answer and wanted to score some points for it, but no one did.)

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