The ideas behind the books
Power tends to corrupt
Do you remember the final scene of Futuretrack 5 by Robert Westall? This is another grim fantasy set some time in the future when every minute detail of civil life is tracked relentlessly by computers, and policed remorselessly by paramilitary force. Our hero, Henry Kitson, has seen all the inadequacies of the society in which he lives and finds himself in sole charge of the national computer, known as Laura.
In a moment of great insight Kitson feeds a vast bank of knowledge into the computer which had previously been withheld. It is the sum total of humanity's knowledge of philosophy, morality and religion:
Never tell me a computer cannot suffer.
I suffered all through that night with Laura. Mainly, she suffered in silence. But at midnight she clicked on and said, "What is possible is not the same as what is moral."
"Welcome to the club," I said, but she didn't reply.
We are left to wonder, at the end of the book, what will happen to Kitson's society now. Kitson believes that if he ever leaves the room where Laura is, he will be arrested and imprisoned, and Laura will be de-activated, thus allowing the old regime to regain control. He concludes that he must spend the rest of his life in the same room as Laura, guarding her day and night. Indeed, this was the fate of his predecessor, Idris Jones, who invented Laura.
But couldn't Kitson and Laura together, with her infinite control over all the nation's computers, introduce a moral society?
Laura came on-line again. "Everything contradicts itself. I must keep on making decisions, on the wrong data. If I make my old decisions, I will bring harm. If I do not, I will bring greater harm."
"Keep on making the old decisions, until we find a whole new way."
"Even the lobo-farm?" (where lobotomies are performed on miscreants)
"Even the lobo-farm. Until we find a new way."
"There is no new way," sneered Sellers. "You won't change anything, Kitson. It's not changeable. If you keep the whip-hand for a fortnight ... if ... you'll be as bad as all the rest. Already you can't do without the Paramils. Soon you'll need the lobo-farm."
What you think might actually happen next depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.
It's a bit like the decision which faces Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, isn't it? Frodo finds himself burdened with sole possession of the one Ring which can enslave all the free races of his world. He does not want the responsibility and tries to give it away, but none of the wise and powerful lords of his world will take it from him for fear that they will become corrupted by the Ring:
'We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. Consider Saruman. If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron's throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear. And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise. For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so. I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it.'
That was Lord Elrond Half-Elven speaking, but Galadriel of Lothlorien feels the same:
'And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!'
She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
'I pass the test,' she said. 'I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.'
It says a lot for Frodo's purity of purpose that he can carry such an unspeakably powerful and malevolent burden so far. And yet, at the end, he needs help to achieve the final purpose.
It was a profound observation of the human condition, I think, when Lord Acton (1834 - 1902) wrote:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 3 April 1887. See Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton (1904).