Book Review: Year of Consent, by Kendell Foster Crossen

Year of Consent, by Kendell Foster Crossen


This is a pulp SF novel from 1954, which has uncomfortable relevance to our present era.

The story is set in the then-future year of 1990.  The United States is still nominally a democracy, but the real power lies with the social engineers…sophisticated advertising & PR men…who use psychological methods to persuade people that they really want what they are supposed to want.  (Prefiguring “nudging”)  The social engineers are aided in their tasks by a giant computer called Sociac (500,000 vacuum tubes! 860,000 relays!) and colloquially known as ‘Herbie.’  The political system now in place is called Democratic Rule by Consent.  While the US still has a President, he is a figurehead and the administration of the country is actually done by the General Manager of the United States….who himself serves at the pleasure of the social engineers.  The social engineers work in a department called ‘Communications’, which most people believe is limited to such benign tasks as keeping the telephones and the television stations in operation.  Actually, its main function is the carrying out of influence operations.

One approach involves the publishing of novels which are fictional, but carry implicit social and/or political messages…via, for example, the beliefs and affiliations of the bad guys versus the good guys. Even the structure of novels is managed for messaging reasons: romance-story plots should not be boy gets girl…loses girl…gets girl back, but rather boy gets girl, loses girl, gets different girl who is really right for him.

Some methods are more direct, although their real objectives are not stated.  One such objective is population control: If the fertility rate is running a little low, advertising is ramped up for a pill called Glamorenes, which are said to create the “rounded, glamorous figure of a TV star…remember–it’s Glamorenes for glamor.”  Actually, the real function of Glamorenes, which is top secret, is to increase a woman’s sex drive and expand the fertility window.  On the other hand, if the birth rate is running too high, the ad emphasis switches to Slimettes for women and Vigorone for men, both of which have a contraceptive effect.  The book’s protagonist, Gerald Leeds, is one of the few who is in on the secret, and when he hears a Glamorenes ad, he realizes that this is the real reason why his girlfriend, Nancy, has been acting especially affectionate lately.

Few people, even at the highest levels of government, realize just how powerful the Communications Department really is.  “Even the biggest wheels only know part of it.  They think the Communications Administrative Department exists to help them–and not the other way around.”

The computer known as Sociac (‘Herby’) accumulates vast amounts of data on individuals, including such things as shopping, dining, and vacation preferences. “Thus, when the administration wanted to make a new move, they knew exactly how to condition the people so that it would be backed. Or they knew exactly what sort of man to put up to win a popular election.” Telephone calls are tapped, but are rarely listened to directly by government agents; rather, they are fed directly to “a calculator” (perhaps a front-end to Herbie) and added to “the huge stock of intimate knowledge about the people.”

Those individuals who resist the conditioning and are found to hold unapproved opinions–or find themselves to hold unapproved opinions–are said to have “communications blocks,” and good citizens will act on their own to request treatment for such blocks. The first level of treatment is the Psychotherapy Calculator, an interactive system which will help the patient change any objectionable opinions and behavior.  But in some cases, the PC determines that stronger methods are necessary, and in those cases, the patient is referred for a lobotomy.  The escorting of patients for mandatory psychotherapy and lobotomy procedures is done by a white-uniformed police force known as the Clinic Squad.

Citizens are, of course, expected to report any instances of unapproved beliefs or actions.  When the protagonist’s girlfriend Nancy overhears one of her colleagues expressing sympathy for a man who is in serious trouble, she reports the girl immediately. (“For the moment I disliked Nancy,” says Gerald.  “Then I felt sorry for her.”)  Nancy herself is concerned that there may be something wrong with her, and has considered reporting herself for voluntary automated psychotherapy.  “If I did have (something wrong with her), I’d want to be purged of it quickly before it could make me do something awful like that poor Mr Shell”…Gerald notes that her hand was shaking as she lifted her glass to finish the drink.

Gerald, the protagonist, works within the Communications Department…unknown to his superiors, he is a member of a resistance organization which aims to overthrow the existing system of government and to restore individual liberty. He must feign agreement when his immediate boss talks about how wonderful the system is and how misguided are those who oppose it:

Never has there been more freedom anywhere than in America today.  We’ve done away with police and even prisons.  Crime has been almost wiped out since we recognized it as a social disease.  We’ve done away with poverty. There are fewer restrictions on people than ever before in the history of mankind.  For the first time they’re really free.

Gerald reflects:

Even if it hadn’t been dangerous, I wouldn’t have argued with him.  He believed what he was saying. His faith was the faith of a Torquemada backed by science.  There was no way to make him see that the social engineers had taken away only one freedom, but that it was the ultimate freedom–the right to choose.  Everything…was decided for them and then they were conditioned to want it.

Gerald definitely has to watch his step: in addition to being subject to the special surveillance which is applied to all members of Security and Consent, concerns have been raised about one of his personal characteristics:  he has too much of a sense of humor, not viewed as a desirable thing.

There is another dissident group, quite distinct from the organization of which Gerald is a member: that other group is the Communists.  They are tolerated by the government, but confined to a reservation in South Dakota.  Gerald meets one of these people while on a government mission, and the man is just like you would expect a Communist to be, mentally rigid and talking about how wonderful things must be in Russia, where the Soviet government still holds sway.  Gerald tells him that in Russia today there “a few shortages.  And there’s not too much individual liberty.”

He looked startled, but his face quickly brightened.  “Of course,” he said.  “Why even the great Lenin said, “It is true that liberty is precious–so precious that it must be rationed.”

“Yeah,” I said dryly.  “Hobbyhorses.”


“Hobbyhorses,” I repeated. “Did you know that it is now almost two generations since hobbyhorses have been sold in toy stores in either Russia or the United States?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he said doubtfully.

“I’m not sure why hobbyhorses withered away in the Soviet,” I said, “but the ban was started here by the playschool consultants, who were influenced by the social engineers long before the latter came into power.  They put the finger on hobbyhorses on the grounds that they did not develop the group spirit.”

He nodded thoughtfully.  “Of course. But you realize that it meant different things in the two countries.  Here the group spirit was used to build fascism while in Russia and the Soviet Countries it was used to build a people’s world.

The resistance organization of which Gerald is a member follows not Karl Marx but Henry David Thoreau, they seen government as a limited servant of the people rather than a master. They are known as the Uns because of their affinity for the United Nations. (The idea of the UN as a benign organization was more excusable in 1954 than it is at present; even Heinlein portrays the UN positively in some of his future history stories.)  And the Uns are viewed as much more of a threat by the government than are the boxed-in Communists.  Indeed, one of the major objectives of the Communications Department is to tie the Uns and the Communists together in the public mind, via novels and even popular songs making it appear that the two movements are the same thing.

The task facing the Uns in their attempt to change the order of things is not an easy one:

This is a fight to the finish between mass man and individual man.  It was a pretty even match until the advent of controlled mass communications.  Then the giant electronic brains completely tipped the scales.   ..there is no difference between our social engineers and those in Russia.  Both are out to turn the world into one of mass men–everyone conforming in every single way.  And they’ve damn near succeeded.

The Uns make a sharp distinction between revolution and rebellion:

Ours was not a revolution but a rebellion.  We suffered from too much revolution.  The Communists in Russia had won a revolution; the social engineers in America had won a more peaceful but no less effective one.  There had never been a revolutionist who did not insist that the individual must be submissive to a central committee–but we believed that central committees must always be submissive to individuals.

There is no limit to what may be done to the individual in the name of the revolution.  Rebellion, on the other hand, springs from a recognition that there are limits to what can be done to any individual.  Rebellion consists of saying: beyond this point we will not go….Every individual is naturally a rebel; he becomes a revolutionary, or the victim revolutionaries, when he ceases to be an individual. 

Year of Consent can’t be called great literature, on a par with 1984 or Brave New World, but it projects a future which is perhaps closer to the immediate threats facing American liberty in 2020 than do either of those two other novels.


16 thoughts on “Book Review: <em>Year of Consent</em>, by Kendell Foster Crossen”

  1. Thanks, David, for this lengthy summary. It was, well, interesting. As in the curse of may you live in interesting times – for that seems to be what has happened.

    For most of my mature life I’ve known – well been acquainted enough to hear long rants and in some times lectures – many people who see advertisers (sometimes corporations, sometimes politicians, lately news reporters) as having a strong hold on our imaginations. That has always struck me as overstated and at times as paranoid. I always thought biology, for instance, was stronger as were ideas and always the experiential – what works. My more religious and spiritual friends had that to counter these. They seem to have more of a rock, more of a sense of what works. But I’ll acknowledge that I always realized that the my main argument was no argument: I just didn’t want to believe it.

    Crossen appears to be incredibly prescient about computers, advertising, utopian managers, and, well, an awful lot. (Not the UN of course and actually while Thoreau’s style and the wisdom of an occasional axiom that is remarkably well written, he is not someone it seems to me anyone should follow. He’s a lot like Rousseau and, as my son-in-law observed after reading him for the first time a couple of years ago, he is remarkably hectoring. His tone is that of a Karen if anyone’s ever was.) Still and all, this is disturbing because when I was 9 someone saw a world that is disturbingly close to the one I live in at 75. And we marched into this, I guess, because a lot of us were like me -just didn’t want to believe it could happen. And with Alexa, etc., Twitter, and politicians more interested in re-election and figuring out how that is achieved than actually doing much, I’m not sure how we get out of this. In the last episode of “A Person of Interest” the only answer appears to be a duel between the two AIs in which both die and we are left, again, without the cushion and threat of an all-knowing system. But once one becomes possible, another will appear, I assume. I don’t think that is a very conclusive final act.

  2. I’ve also long thought that a lot of the complaints about the influence advertising were over-stated, to say the least, and I still think that. (Like the assertion that the only reason girls play with dolls is because the advertising tells them to!) But what’s going on now is not just advertising but tight control of news/information by entities which are closely linked to one political party and much of the administrative machinery of the government. Also the extreme pressure to conform generated by social media and its enablement of on-line mobbing.

    Not to mention the content of books, films, art, and music: while there may not be a government agency telling writers which kinds of stories and character portrayals are acceptable and which are not, the eager conformity within the publishing and film industries has much of the same effect.

  3. From the New York Times, just the other day–no I will not give them a link:
    In a Topsy-Turvy Pandemic World, China Offers Its Version of Freedom
    Surveillance and censorship bolster Beijing’s uncompromising grip on power. But in the country’s cities and streets, people have resumed normal lives.

    China effectively now owns the western media outright, and we who are paranoid nutjobs know they own the politicians as well. The suppression of the NY Post story on the Biden crime family should be a national scandal, but to be honest I don’t understand why they aren’t running daily stories on it still. They just gave up. Which should be the epitaph for every single “conservative” institution: “they just gave up.”

  4. One big difference between our world and the future as envisaged by Crossen: He did not image that a huge % of human interactions…including ones that previously would have been private discussions among small groups of friends…would be computer-mediated and conducted by the typing of text. This obviously makes surveillance and control far easier and creates a record which can potentially be used for intimidation purposes.

  5. Honestly if some white hat hackers could vaporize all social media sites it would be the greatest possible service to humanity.

    If one wasn’t averse to conspiracy theories you could easily construct a scenario where the internet was a plot hatched by the CIA (with assistance from the Kremlin and/or China, if you thought you wanted more moving parts) for complete population surveillance and control.

  6. Brian–before social media took off, the Internet was *beneficial*, in a big way, to freedom of speech and the weakening of gatekeeper power.

    Today there are a lot of people who really don’t seem to understand that there is an Internet world outside these controlled social-media environments…indeed, there are some who don’t understand that if you’re on FB and want to know what Suzy Smith is saying today, you really don’t have to wait for her to show up on your newsfeed, just go to her page directly. Really.

  7. An online thread:
    For me, the striking thing about so many of these images of rioters in the Capitol is that what they’re doing – all of them – is creating content for social media.
    At least in their minds, the true seat of power is not actually in that building. It’s online.
    Politics is always performative, but the nature of the performance has changed dramatically in just a few years. What we saw today was the sudden, violent disruption of one performance, the certification of electoral college votes, for another, wilder show.
    They could have done anything in that building today. What they did, by and large, was take selfies and create social media content. That was what really mattered to them. Whatever higher motives they might claim, their actions suggest that was the real motive for many of them.
    It’s no coincidence that the star and driving animus of this show is a man who has built his whole life and business around delivering compelling performances on broadcast and digital media.

  8. Brian…very interesting point about social media. Politics aside, there are clearly a lot of people who tend to organize their life activities around doing things (that they think will) look good on social media.

    In general, though, I think most of such people are on the so-called ‘progressive’ side.

  9. I think I’ve said the same thing here repeatedly in the past. So many people live like they are the stars of a movie, and interact with “people” online like it’s some sort of game they are trying to win. I don’t make any claim about how it’s correlated with political ideology.

    The last 24 hours–major businesses advocating the removal of a president, and a complete shutdown of his access to the internet–is absolutely insane. Things are all so completely and horribly wrong.

  10. Brian…”So many people live like they are the stars of a movie, and interact with “people” online like it’s some sort of game they are trying to win.” In one of Fielding’s novels, I think it was Tom Jones, a woman is happily reviewing her guestbook showing all the titled/prominent people who attended her parties…instantly reminded me of people on FB collecting Likes.

    So there is some historical precedent (presuming Fielding was inspired by real-life people he’s witnesses) for the Performative view of life, but social media has certainly made it more intense.

  11. The Hugo award winner for 1955 was They’d Rather Be Right where the McGuffin is a computer that makes people immortal but only if they were willing to give up their false beliefs.

  12. Off topic, other than it’s a work of art. Watched “Far From Men” at Amazon Prime. Good movie, not perfect, but far superior to anything I’ve seen come out for a long time and thought I’d share. Algerian uprising 1954, Viggo Mortenson, short story by Camus.


  13. > Today there are a lot of people who really don’t seem to understand that there is an Internet world outside these controlled social-media environments…i

    We saw that before, when AOL ruled the roost. AOL users often thought AOL itself was “the internet”, and were confused and sometimes angry that people would do things they didn’t like. And then they’d announce they were going to denounce them to AOL’s moderators… that happened often enough on usenet that it was practically a meme.

    Now, people have Facebook and Twitter preinstalled on their phone, and they might add Amazon and eBay, and that’s pretty much the whole of “the internet” that they see.

  14. A great historical fact that IMO will never be really grasped or documented is the extent of propagation (mostly unconscious) through 20th century mass culture of memes, attitudes, and sensibilities.

    For instance, it’s no secret that Jews were present in the creation and production of film and television far out of proportion to their numbers. The content they created was imbued with their particular sensibilities. This happened with essentially no conscious thought; and very possibly in “micro” actions: a few words of dialogue phrased differently, a minor character’s name. Thus the sensibilities of the tiny Jewish minority were amplified by propagation to mass audiences.

    The mechanisms of finance and control also had effects on content; but again, often in subtle ways, invisible even to the participants. American TV had ads; British TV mostly didn’t. What did that do?

    I don’t believe anyone could (or can, even now) create or use these currents systematically or reliably. Occasionally some person or group will succeed, but with some more obvious “push” that happens to connect with a pre-existing potential or channel.

    Thus I question Crossen’s vision of a few clever demiurges as puppetmasters of a whole society.

    OTOH, enough control to smother dissent seems plausible.

  15. David – thanks to you and all the Boyz and Girlz here for keeping the light burning. I suspect your blog will be targeted eventually for cancellation, so I wanted to express my gratitude before that happens.
    I’m assuming you are prepared for the eventuality that is now pretty much a certainty.

    Afterwards, those who know there is more to the Internet than Google and Amazon will find you.



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