Nothing But The Truth

James Halperin's book The Truth Machine calls for a utopia where infallible lie detectors make us better people from the president on down. Is it science fiction or prophecy?

Sometime in the early 21st century--when America is scourged everywhere by violent crime, and terrorist groups roam the world with biological weapons and suitcase-sized nuclear bombs--a computer programming genius and his Dallas-based company perfect the first 100 percent foolproof lie detector. Its use throughout American society--in law enforcement, the judicial system, business, and politics--is not only welcomed, it is virtually unchallenged even by civil libertarians, thanks mainly to the public's desperation to shore up their crumbling society. The government passes a mandatory death-penalty law against even attempting to override the truth machine's perfect accuracy.

The results are almost immediate. Violent crime levels spiral downward, politicians discover honesty, the divorce rate bottoms out, people live longer and healthier lives, and a world government is created. And, presumably, the concept of trust becomes extinct.

It's as close to utopia as Dallas science-fiction author James Halperin can imagine--as he does in his first novel, The Truth Machine. Halperin never wrestles with the idea that a future in which people are constantly under the scrutiny of infallible polygraphs could veer into a nightmarish dystopia. (He even sees lie-detector-enforced 100 percent true conversations between spouses and lovers as a blessing.)

Halperin boldly declares in his novel's afterword: "If you would like to see a truth machine sooner rather than later, or even if you just think the idea merits more attention, help me spread the word. Discuss the concept with friends and colleagues; give this book to a friend; or recommend that your friends buy their own copy."

But then, The Truth Machine has never been just a work of fiction for Halperin. To him and many readers, it's also a handbook for the way things could be. And--not to suggest any publishing-world mendacity--it's also an ingenious way to market a book.

Forty-four-year-old James Halperin isn't some political crank who pounds out dire manifestoes about the future. First, he makes no claims as a writer or an electronics expert but as a numismatist and one of the world's leading dealers in rare coins and currencies.

Halperin was born with an irrepressible entrepreneurial spark. "I ran lemonade stands, a mail-order business, created and sold comic books and other publications, put together neighborhood circuses and astronomy shows, set up a paper route, sold blueberries door to door, etc.," he says. "These businesses were nearly always successful--by the standards of my age group--because in every case I have been utterly obsessive about them."

By the age of 15 he was in the business of obsessing about rare coins. Though he went on to study philosophy and psychology at Harvard, Halperin dropped out during his sophomore year to return to what would become his life's work. "My heart was already in numismatics, so I didn't study very hard while I was there," he says.

Ironically, for a man who spends his days buying, selling, and loving old coins, Halperin has always been fascinated by the future. And he has never been afraid to gamble on it. He's a member of Alcor, a major company pioneering the yet unproven science of cryonics. When Halperin dies, Alcor technicians will dispatch his body to the company's Phoenix lab, where it will be dunked into a tank of subzero liquid. It will be stored until--the theory is--Halperin can be thawed out and revived when a cure has been discovered or medical procedures have been developed to deal with whatever it is that killed him, whether it be aging, disease, or trauma.

Halperin has written books before--guides to coin collecting--but was never interested in writing fiction until he read a scientific article in Omni magazine that intrigued him. The story speculated about the possibility of cloning a dinosaur from the DNA in dinosaur blood extracted from prehistoric mosquitoes that had been preserved in tree amber.

"I thought, you know, this would make a really, really good novel," Halperin says. It would, indeed: Two years later, Michael Crichton published Jurassic Park.

Halperin decided that the next time he came across what he thought was a hot story idea he would turn it into a novel without hesitation.

A few years later, he was reading Joe McGinniss' Fatal Vision, a true crime book about Jeffrey MacDonald. MacDonald was accused and convicted of murdering his family. But doubts persisted about whether MacDonald, who claimed his family was murdered by an intruder, was guilty.

"I'm thinking, Here's a guy whose whole family has been killed. If he's innocent, what the guy's gone through just boggles the mind," Halperin says. "If only there were a way to know. If somebody could invent a foolproof lie detector, that would be the most important invention ever. It would be the most important invention in human history. It would change everything--and not just in criminal justice," he says.

Halperin was so excited about the concept that, with his usual enthusiasm, he bypassed merely writing a book about a super lie detector; he investigated setting up and investing in a consortium to develop such a machine.

"I'm almost ashamed to admit this, since it seems so ridiculous to me in retrospect," Halperin says. "When I first had the idea, I thought it might be interesting to try to put together a partnership to actually build a foolproof lie detector. I knew it would be expensive, but hoped I could somehow raise enough money.

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