Story ID: computer thinks man is dead
June 19, 2014 11:37 PM   Subscribe

A friend asked me this and I'm coming up blank: I remember an old SF story ('50s or earlier) about a person living at a time when everything is run by computers (i.e. now) and he is entered has having died, so the system cancels all his ID, freezes his bank account, won't recognise him as alive, and he ends up living in the cracks (he can't be arrested because he's dead, etc.) Can you remember which story this is?
posted by ICanHazQuestion to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I think I read a very similar one, where instead, a man is being charged for a book or something that he didn't order, and trying to fight with automated computers that are charging him higher and higher amounts of fees (in a way that suggests the AIs are being malicious), and then he's just declared dead.

Kind of, the futility of fighting with computers/the system type moral.
posted by Elysum at 11:50 PM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the same kind of thing happens in The Handmaid's Tale, but that's a female protagonist and a lot more recently published.
posted by mymbleth at 12:42 AM on June 20, 2014

There's a story from the '50s in which people are intentionally put into such a condition as a punishment (and others are not legally allowed to recognize them on the street.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:40 AM on June 20, 2014

Season 1 episode 4 of the Max Headroom tv series is pretty much this plot. Our intrepid reporter is investigating a major security company and his citizen profile is removed. He becomes a "Blank" until it all gets fixed. Blanks can't be arrested but they can be disappeared or sold to a body bank. He loses access to his car, job, apartment, bank account, etc..

It's a good series and worth watching if you run across it.
posted by irisclara at 4:41 AM on June 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

"Nobody Starves" by Ron Goulart. "Nobody starves" is what the system keeps reassuring the protagonist, even as it denies him jobs and assistance because he's not listed.

Spoiler to help you recognize the story: he connects with a woman who's also living in the cracks, but at the end she gets shot while they're stealing food.
posted by moonmilk at 4:54 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

As I recall, the man had a very long hyphenated last name that didn't fit onto the computer punch cards which was part of the problem.

Yeah, what was that story?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:38 AM on June 20, 2014

There was an episode of All in the Family based on that concept. It led to one of my favorite TV punchlines, as Archie calls one of the bureaucracies to try to get it straightened out:
"This is Archie Bunker, callin' you from the grave. Wish you was here."
It seems like it was a very popular fear in the 1960's and '70's - [art of the whole dehumanization, "I Am a Human Being, Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate" thing.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:49 AM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

My first thought was of the movie Brazil, but that movie came out in 1985.
posted by tckma at 6:04 AM on June 20, 2014

Bill The Galactic Hero has the "deplanned" on its Trantor knock-off... like Brazil it's too late, though.
posted by Leon at 6:43 AM on June 20, 2014

I mean, there's The Beygency...but that's probably not what you're thinking of.

(This sort of happened to a friend of mine in real life. The IRS decided he was dead and behaved accordingly and it took several years to convince them otherwise. In the meantime, parts of his life became more difficult. Turns out that the IRS has its claws in eeeverything)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 6:59 AM on June 20, 2014

Sounds a bit like "Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman. But that was much more recent than 1950s.
posted by aecorwin at 7:17 AM on June 20, 2014

Not sure if this is the story that the OP is looking for, but the story that you're talking about, Elysum, is "Computers Don't Argue" by Gordon R. Dickson. I read this story in a middle school reader in the 1980s and for some reason it never left me.
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:10 AM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hmm, I remember this one (a clear precursor to Buttle/Tuttle), but it doesn't appear to be one of Asimov's Multivac stories (a seemingly likely search target). Definitely some Kafka/Vonnegut vibes but the utter simplicity of the story (that is, it isn't a bigger story, but about the actual problem) suggests Golden Age sf. The bit about the name being too long strikes a chord with me.
posted by dhartung at 6:52 PM on June 20, 2014

Roger Zelazny, My Name is Legion
posted by timeo danaos at 9:27 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Could it be "Flow my tears, the policeman said" by Phillip K Dick?
posted by Combat Wombat at 5:17 AM on June 21, 2014

timeo seems to be correct as this is a significant part of the backstory to that novella cycle. I'm still sure I remember a bit about an unwieldy name resulting in a similar situation, which was a mistake turning out more a blessing than a curse sort of thing, and this would probably have been a much older story.
posted by dhartung at 5:40 PM on June 21, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions. I ran them by him, and I'll let you know if any of them is the right one.
posted by ICanHazQuestion at 9:21 PM on June 23, 2014

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