Opening Passage: The book combines two story arcs, a 'Then' story arc, which slowly gives the background, and the main 'Now' story arc; technically the book starts with 'Then', but in practice this works like a prologue. So I give the opening passage of the first 'Now' section:
The window was too damned dirty to look through. Sarah Beaumont glanced around the empty room and saw a rag in the old house. There were mouse droppings scattered about, cobwebs, fragments of plaster. In places, the ribs of the walls showed through the broken plaster. With a sigh of disgust, she walked over and picked up the rag and shook it. A spider crawled out and she watched it go its way. (p. 9)
Summary: Real estate developer Sarah Beaumont and architect Dennis French, looking for houses to rework and sell, come upon an old house, originally built by a silver baron, that seems exactly suitable for their purposes. In the wall they happen to come across a newspaper clipping and a sheet of notes. The newspaper clipping is from the 1892 Denver Express and tells a story of a gunfight in which a bystander, named Brady Quinn, was killed. The notes are a series of historical events, given variously a label of 1, 2, or 3; most of the historical events are quite important, but there are some peculiar ones, and one of them is "Brady Quinn murdered". At the top of the notes is the word 'Cliological'; at the bottom is 'Try orthogonal factor analysis'. Further research on the house uncovers the fact that Brady Quinn, who had been a statistician for the Interior Department, was the man who bought the house from the silver baron, and held it until he sold it in 1876 to a man named Randall Carson, and that he had previously been wounded as a bystander in a train robbery in 1881. Research on Randall Carson leads to an old warehouse owned by home, where Sarah discovers a room full of Babbage Analytical Engines -- i.e., computing machines that had originally been designed by Charles Babbage but had supposedly never been built -- and an index of mathematical papers on social subjects. Dennis French, in the meantime, talks to a history professor named Gynn Llewellyn, who suggests that the historical events in the notes, if they mean anything, are perhaps 'horseshoe nails', i.e., small changes with large historical effects.
All of this begins coming to a head when a man tries to assassinate Sarah, a journalist friend of hers who was helping her research is killed, and Dennis is then hit by a car and somehow vanishes from the hospital with no trace. Sarah and Dennis had stumbled upon a secret society of people who had discovered how to predict and manipulate social events: the Babbage Society, so called because it was inspired by the work of Charles Babbage. Actually, it turns out that the original Babbage Society had bifurcated into two different groups, due in fact to Brady Quinn, and more remotely to the Society's mishandling of the Civil War. In particular, they had not predicted it at all. The original society had forecasted the rise of a United Germany and a world war in the 1940s using weapons of unimaginable power, the result of which would be a new dark ages; they also discovered that the United States could potentially match the United Germany, but only if it abolished slavery much more quickly than it naturally would, thus freeing up the country to begin major industrial expansion sooner. So they pulled a few strings ('horseshoe nails') to accelerate matters, but through a series of unpredicted events, a Civil War that should have been easily avoided broke out, and getting the nation back on track quickly enough after the Civil War would require another 'horseshoe nail': the assassination of Lincoln. In the next generation, Quinn and a number of others, disssatisfied with the direction of the Society, broke off and formed another group, the Associates.
Sarah eventually becomes allied to the Associates, but in the aftermath of the attempt on her life, she had written a computer program, a bot, as we would say, to investigate the entire internet for any database containing a percentage of the names that Sarah's and Dennis's research had discovered, and dump the contents of it onto any other computer and printer it could access. The program succeeds and suddenly the whole country finds its printers printing out evidence of a cabal behind the scene manipulating events. More immediately to the point, the Associates discover in the program's output evidence that there is a third cliological society manipulating events behind the scenes. This eventually leads to the discovery of others. Perhaps the Civil War hadn't been an unexpected consequence of the tampering of the original Babbage Society. Perhaps there were other agendas on the table. And one of the newly discovered societies, dubbed the Q from a mysterious reference in the program's output, turns out to have no tolerance for other societies interfering with its work.
There are certainly social patterns; there are perhaps social laws. We can certainly manipulate social events; and we certainly try not merely to affect them but to engineer them. To know the underlying laws of social events and use them to change the course of history would certainly be a great power; someone who knew that would be the proverbial one-eyed man in the country of the blind. But to know the order of things is not to step outside the order of things; the one-eyed man is as subject to the social laws as the blind man. But what is the solution to the abuses that arise from the power imbalance created by the one-eyed man's being the only person who can see?
No manipulation. She had vowed that while she searched for Fee in the long forest shadows tha tawful sunset at Falcon Castle. No more manipulation. An end to the Society and to the Associates. And now: to the Six and its offshoot, and to who knew how many others?
A noble resolution. Yet Pandora's box was already open. How can you assure that no one will use a tool when taht tool has already been in use for generations? How could you even know it was being used? Cliolgoy could be applies subtly, over the course of decades. We're too accustomed to rapid change, she thought. We celebrate every ephemeral swing of fashion, while generational trends go unnoticed. Cliologists were patient; their machinations could creep up on your like the tide. And there were too many cliologists.
She straightened up slightly in her seat. Or were there? She remembered, suddenly, that Hope had lingered there in Pandora's open chest. (p. 340)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.
Michael Flynn, In the Country of the Blind, Tor Books (New York: 2001).