The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg

The Stochastic Man

by Robert Silverberg

Form: Novel

Year: 1975

ID: 1108

Publication history:


(from Fawcett 1976)

Lew Nichols' business, at the end of the twentieth century, was stochastic prediction — high-powered guesswork. He was very good at this well-paying, sophisticated, and technical species of witchcraft. And he was quite content with the sultry and sensuous Indian beauty he married.

Lew Nichols' life was a placid as an electron flow — until a fateful day in March '99 when he met Martin Carvajal. From the first, Lew got strange vibrations from the sullen and eccentric millionaire:

Your computer models, said Carvajal, allow you to guess the future. Now I will show you how to control it!


Webster's Unabridged:

stochastic: of or pertaining to a process involving a randomly determined sequence of observations each of which is considered a sample of one element from a probability distribution. Stochastic variation implies randomness as opposed to a fixed rule or relation in passing from one observation to the next in order.

Nominated for Nebula Award for best novel, 1975.

What would it really be like to see the future? This is one of the questions Frank Herbert asked in Dune, and he gave us an answer of sorts. At some length. Silverberg asks the same question in The Stochastic Man, and comes up with a very different answer. One problem of the whole concept of foresight is that if one can see the future, the future must be determined, immutable, and if the future is already determined, we must be deluding ourselves if we think we have choices.

Silverbergs two main characters are Lew Nichols and Martin Carvajal. Nichols has made a name for himself in the business of predicting trends using a combination of mathematical methods and keen insight; he predicts the future, but his predictions are statistical, not visionary, and are subject to error. Carvajal, on the other hand, sees the future. It comes to him in flashes, bits and pieces which he has assembled over the years into a roadmap of things to come. Nothing surprises him, nothing affects him, for he has seen it all by the time it happens including his own death. He knows it is pointless to try to change things; years ago the futility of that brought him to his fatalistic attitude. One of the things Carvajal has seen is that Nichols shares the gift in a dormant state. But the passive acceptance of his mentor is far from easy for Nichols.

I must say that the whole topic is somewhat difficult for me. Silverbergs conclusion (that prediction implies predetermination) is more or less inescapable, but quite unpleasant. I, like most of us, like to think that my choices make a difference, that I have some part in shaping my life. Nichols feels the same way at first, and Carvajal explains at length the error of the illusion of free will. In the context of the story, this proposition makes absolute sense, but it is a continual source of discomfort. This is, I suppose, exactly what Silverberg intends. As in The Second Trip and Dying Inside, and some others of the era, the story is far from a feel-good affirmation of human goodness.

For the electronic form of the book, try this link.

Other resources:

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