Nothing But The Truth
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.
"Then a neuroscientist friend explained why such a device would be so difficult to create," he says. "When he laid out what would be involved, I estimated the project would require 25 to 100 years to complete, with little chance that my group would get there first. That was when I decided a novel might be a better way to advance the idea."
Aware of his ignorance of writing fiction, Halperin spent two years putting together an outline for the book, then hired an experienced writer as a collaborator. When that arrangement failed to work out, Halperin decided to at least complete the first draft on his own. Three months later, in April 1995, he completed his first version of The Truth Machine--which, he admits, "really wasn't very good."
So the coin dealer took a night course in creative writing, hired editors to coach him, and met a Seattle-based screenwriter who motivated him to keep writing and rewriting his novel. About nine months and 20 rewrites of the more-than-100,000-word manuscript later, Halperin had a book that he felt was publishable.
Most science fiction depicts the future as either a utopia or dystopia; usually the utopias follow the Brave New World pattern and in the end, in exchange for a more perfect world, exact a horrible cost from their citizens. And the reader gets another bleak lesson about toying with the power of science and technology, often with spectacular Jurassic Park-like finales.
Halperin, on the other hand, predicts a near-ideal society with little or no downside as a result of the truth machine. It's a point that remains open to debate for many Truth Machine readers, who in postings to Halperin's Website probe these issues with more insight and passion than the author himself.
"Unfortunately, as useful as such a machine might be, it would be run by someone in power," notes one reader in a posting to Halperin. "That much power inevitably corrupts, and the resultant maniac at the helm of the no longer free world could redefine 'dictator.' Not my idea of utopia."
Says another: "If the invention really were to happen, there would most likely be an eruption into violence on a large scale following some application or misapplication of the test."
And that's not even to scratch the surface of knotty philosophical questions on what "truth" is--particularly in a world of politics. "Albert Einstein had a pertinent reaction when he learned after WWII that the U.S. government had set 'permissible' radiation exposure standards," posted one The Truth Machine reader. "'Who permitted them to permit?' Einstein asked. He'd ask the same question of the truth machine--Who permitted a draconian definition of 'Truth'?"
(It's probably better not even to bring up this conundrum presented by a reader: "One obvious logical problem. In order to certify the machine as 100 percent accurate, it would have to be examined by the cognizant scientists and engineers. Even if they agreed that it worked as advertised, how could we prove they were telling the truth about the efficacy of the truth machine? Certainly not with the machine itself.")
Halperin discusses the potential negative moral and societal ramifications of a 100 percent accurate lie detector early in the book, but he brushes most of these issues aside to conclude that the machine would be a boon to humanity.
As The Truth Machine unfolds, the first lie detectors are large and cumbersome and are used only in courts of law. Later, briefcase-sized models are applied to politics, immigration, job and college admission interviews, and business negotiations. Toward the novel's end, Halperin has people wearing miniaturized versions on their wrists for use in their daily lives.
"But by then, most people rarely bother to look at their truth machines at all," Halperin says, "since lying is no longer patterned into normal human behavior."
Thanks to the truth machine and other technological advances, the world has become a better place. Poverty, famine, disease, crime, and other bad things are virtually wiped out. World government is established, too, in part to combat international terrorism, but mostly--Halperin has it--because, under the scrutiny of the perfect lie detectors, world leaders can no longer justify why separate governments benefit anyone.
Halperin is a sharp contrast to most science fiction authors, who--like Philip K. Dick, regarded as one of the genre's best--present technology in a more cautious, even cynical light. In Dick's stories, reliance on fantastic devices like Halperin's truth machine obscures and redefines reality. In Dick's cult novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the movie Blade Runner), psychologically based lie detectors screen out genetically engineered androids from "real" human beings, raising all sorts of philosophical and ethical questions. In The Truth Machine Halperin argues that the truth machine has "clarified" reality--a process we are told is good.
The novel unfolds to the reader as an artifact from the future; it is a historical true crime tale composed by a computer processor programmed to write news stories. "I've been programmed to write in a journalistic style," the electronic scribe tells us. "So don't expect scintillating metaphors or artistic imagery."
This clever literary device is also a cover for Halperin's literary ineptness. "I really don't write that well," he admits.
The novel's principal drama relies on the moral dilemma that Pete Armstrong, the genius inventor of the truth machine, faces. Armstrong is the only person in the world who can successfully lie to the devices because, through a series of circumstances, he felt compelled to reprogram the truth machine prototype to ignore his lies.
The narrative unfolds during a span of 61 years beginning in 1991 and includes news reports that lead the reader into the future, including:
September 2, 2002--Bosnian terrorists take responsibility for the 15-kiloton nuclear blast in downtown Belgrade that vaporized several city blocks; at least 100,000 casualties are estimated.
May 17, 2003--Philip Morris, America's last surviving tobacco company, declares bankruptcy. The legal tobacco industry in the United States is now dead, a casualty of lower demand for cigarettes and mushrooming lawsuits from victims of smoke-related diseases.
The fictitious news events are the most appealing part of The Truth Machine because they mix fiction with a likely extrapolation of current trends. "I polled my smartest friends for their opinions about when certain events would occur--When will humans land on Mars? Cure AIDS? Learn how to predict earthquakes?--and compiled all their answers," Halperin says. "When I wrote the chronology for the story, I simply tried to use common sense and logic, and strove for the plausible essence of truth rather than demonstrable fact."
But the book can be tedious for the same reason. Numbers--years, dates, statistical data--are spewed throughout the narrative. Apparently under the dictum "Write what you know," Halperin goes into the minute details behind the financing needed by the company that sets out to build the truth machine.
"I've always had more affinity for numbers than for words, which is one reason I'm so surprised to find myself now writing novels," Halperin says. "Throughout my academic career, I was definitely a math jock. Numismatics is a decidedly nonverbal profession. I'm fond of saying that we coin dealers calculate and negotiate, but rarely do we communicate. While I have since come to appreciate the power of words, I still believe that numbers are of staggering importance. Our ability to create wealth and improve the human condition is solidly linked to our understanding of numbers."
Because of his understanding of numbers, Halperin, at the time an unpublished and unknown novelist, knew that, even with the most compelling futuristic novel, he still had a serious obstacle ahead. No mainstream publishing houses or literary agents would even read a first novel like The Truth Machine.
Halperin took advantage of his financial connections and published The Truth Machine in April through Ivy Press, a small Dallas publishing house that publishes mostly books and magazines about collectibles. But Halperin owns a financial stake in Ivy Press and, through the magic of numbers, The Truth Machine became Ivy's first and only work of fiction.
Then, to generate public interest, Halperin made a very savvy move. He turned to the Internet. Unfamiliar with the new medium, he hired a technician to set up a Website (www.truth machine.com) and made the novel's text available there. It wasn't a new idea. Sample chapters of books and serializations have been tried often on the Net. But Halperin went one better; he was giving away the whole thing.
Halperin instinctively grasped an important reality of the Web: Surfers won't pay for anything. If a charge is imposed for access to a Website's information, most people will skip the site and go elsewhere. It's a simple application of the law of supply and demand. There's just too much free stuff on the Net, and that fact has snuffed out any demand for paid services and information.
But Halperin was interested in using the Net for something other than simply distributing his book. He wanted concrete marketing and demographic information that could be used, if for nothing else, to woo a publisher. To download the book, visitors to the Website had to fill out surveys regarding their demographics, interests, and feelings about the novel. Would they like to see a movie made from it? Would they blithely subject themselves to lie detectors? In four months, approximately 15,000 people filled out the surveys, Halperin says.
Last summer the book caught the attention of editors at Random House--but through more traditional channels. A friend of Halperin, another numismatist who writes about coins, gave a copy of The Truth Machine to his editor at Random House. Using their own marketing crystal ball, the editors at the New York publishing house predicted The Truth Machine would get a healthy bounce from the nation's upcoming elections. The book's theme of truthfulness, they hoped, would resonate with voters bombarded by political rhetoric from less-than-truthful politicians. Random House purchased the rights and, under its Del Rey science fiction imprint, published the book in September. (When it hit the shelves, the complete downloadable version was removed from the Website, but you can still get sample chapters.)
In the end, of course, the publisher--along with the media, Bob Dole, and just about everyone else--failed to gauge just how jaded most voters were about issues of truthfulness and ethical behavior. The Truth Machine never became a Primary Colors phenomenon.
Next year, Halperin will begin spreading the word about cryonics, with The First Immortal, his sophomore novel, which he has been researching for two years. "The underlying themes of the story include science vs. superstition, and the nature of identity and consciousness," he says. "It is also another journey into the future."
Freezing the dead for resurrection is no sure thing, Halperin admits, but "it is an investment in hope, in the belief that humankind will someday conquer even its most implacable enemy."
Halperin will again explore a future where crime is a rarity, the world is at peace, and people live longer, more fulfilling lives--perhaps indefinitely. "I think most readers would consider the future depicted in The Truth Machine to be far better in most--though certainly not all--respects than our world of today," he insists. "Of course, if everything ended perfectly, it wouldn't make for much of a story, would it
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.