COMPUTERS


COMPUTERS
   The computer revolution in the real world has been so recent and so rapid that sf has had to struggle hard to keep up with actual developments. Although Charles BABBAGE's attempts to develop a mechanical computer have lately attracted attention in such STEAMPUNK novels as THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE (1990 UK) by William GIBSON and Bruce STERLING, they failed to inspire the 19th-century literary imagination. In fiction the notion of "mechanical brains" first evolved as a corollary to that of mechanical men (ROBOTS) - an early one is featured in Edward Page MITCHELL's "The Ablest Man in the World" (1879) - but this tacit acceptance of the notion of powerful skull-sized computers contrasts oddly with the tendency to imagine advanced computers as huge machines the size of buildings, cities or even planets. Sf writers who had been awakened to the advent of computers by the building of ENIAC in the late 1940s failed utterly to foresee the eventual development of the microprocessor. A partial exception is Howard FAST's "The Martian Shop" (1959), which features a computer that fits into a 6in (15cm) cube; however, the point made is that such tininess (which anyway does not seem so tiny today) could not be achieved using foreseeable human technology.In the early sf PULP MAGAZINES, artificial brains, like robots, showed a distinct tendency to go mad and turn against their creators; examples include "The Metal Giants" (1926) by Edmond HAMILTON and "Paradise and Iron" (1930) by Miles J. BREUER. But clever machines featured in more sympathetic roles in several stories by John W. CAMPBELL Jr, who went on from "The Metal Horde" (1930) to write such stories as the series begun with "The Machine" (1935 as by Don A. Stuart), in which a benevolently inclined machine intelligence finally bids farewell to the human race in order to prevent mankind from stagnating through dependence upon its generosity. Revolutions against a mechanical mind which rules society more-or-less benignly have long been commonplace in sf; examples include Francis G. RAYER's Tomorrow Sometimes Comes (1951), Philip K. DICK's Vulcan's Hammer (1960 dos) and Ira LEVIN's This Perfect Day (1970). The New York Times commissioned Isaac ASIMOV's satirical explication of the theme, "The Life and Times of MULTIVAC" (1975), which questions whether such a rebellion would be desirable or necessary; Asimov had been consistently favourable towards the idea of a machine-run society ever since his early advocacy in "The Evitable Conflict" (1950). Another strongly pro-computer story from the 1950s, redolent of the conflict and confrontation typical of the period, is They'd Rather Be Right (1957; vt The Forever Machine) by Mark CLIFTON and Frank RILEY. Hysterical fear of computers is satirized in "The Man who Hated Machines" (1957) by Pierre BOULLE.The idea that machine intelligence might be reckoned the logical end product of EVOLUTION on Earth has a long history in sf, extending from Campbell's "The Last Evolution" (1930) to Sagan om den stora datamaskinin (1966; trans as The Tale of the Big Computer 1968; vt The Great Computer; vt The End of Man?) by Olof JOHANNESSON. The notion of computers evolving to become literally Godlike is featured in Fredric BROWN's "Answer" (1954), Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" (1956), Dino BUZZATI's Il Grande Ritratto (1960; trans as Larger than Life 1962) and Frank HERBERT's Destination: Void (1966). Other accounts of huge computers with delusions of grandeur and the power to back them up include The God Machine (1968) by Martin CAIDIN, Colossus (1966) and its sequels by D.F. JONES, Mayflies (1979) by Kevin O'DONNELL Jr, The Judas Mandala (1982) by Damien BRODERICK and The Venetian Court (1984) by Charles L. HARNESS. The computer incarnation of the Father of Lies in Jeremy LEVEN's Satan (1982) is, by contrast, humble and unassuming. The notion that the computer might be the answer to all our problems is ironically encapsulated in Arthur C. CLARKE's fantasy "The Nine Billion Names of God" (1953), in which a computer rapidly and easily completes the task for which God created mankind.The idea that computers might one day be endowed with - or spontaneously evolve - self-awareness has generated a whole series of speculative exercises in machine existentialism, which inevitably tend to the anthropocentric. Notable examples include "Mike" in THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS (1966) by Robert A. HEINLEIN and the central characters of When Harlie was One (1972) by David GERROLD, The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas J. RYAN (1977), and Valentina: Soul in Sapphire (1984) by Joseph H. DELANEY and Marc STIEGLER. In recent years the notion has become so commonplace as to be intensively recomplicated in such novels as Rudy RUCKER's Software (1982) and Wetware (1988), although Rucker earlier treated the notion sceptically in Spacetime Donuts (1981). William Gibson's eponymous Neuromancer (1984) kicked off a new trend in sentient software, carried forward by other CYBERPUNK writers and fellow-travellers, including Kim NEWMAN in The Night Mayor (1989). Autobiographical statements are offered by nascently sentient machines in "Going Down Smooth" (1968) by Robert SILVERBERG, Arrive at Easterwine (1971) by R.A. LAFFERTY and - most impressively - Queen of Angels (1990) by Greg BEAR.The fear of computers "taking over" our lives remains a powerful influence, manifest across a broad spectrum of story types. These range from straightforward foul-up stories - e.g., "Computers Don't Argue" (1965) by Gordon R. DICKSON - to surreal extravaganzas like "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" (1967) by Harlan ELLISON. D.G. COMPTON's The Steel Crocodile (1970; vt The Electric Crocodile) and John BRUNNER's The Shockwave Rider (1975) offer striking examples of computers being used, with good intentions but repressively, by NEAR FUTURE politico-technocratic elites. On the other hand, Man Plus (1976) by Frederik POHL presents a secret computer take-over as not necessarily a bad thing, and Michaelmas (1977) by Algis BUDRYS proposes that the dictatorship of the machine-based system might in the end be benevolent. A metaphysical (METAPHYSICS) species of take-over is displayed in stories in which computers literally absorb human personalities. Interesting examples are The Ring of Ritornel (1968) by Charles L. HARNESS, Midsummer Century (1972) by James BLISH and Catchworld (1975) by Chris BOYCE. In recent years the idea of "downloading" human personalities into machinery has been used very promiscuously indeed, being one of the key corollaries of the notion of "cyberspace"; it is featured in Vernor VINGE's proto-cyberpunk story True Names (1981; 1981 dos), and had become a virtual cliche by the time Frederik Pohl's Heechee Rendezvous (1984) and Greg BEAR's Eon (1985) proposed that software afterlives might one day be universally on offer. The attractions of this possibility are obvious, if slightly dubious.Real-world developments in computer games have had a considerable influence on sf (GAMES AND SPORTS; GAMES AND TOYS); Rob SWIGART's novel Portal: A Dataspace Retrieval (1988) is eccentrically modelled on such a game. Computer SCIENTISTS are nowadays common characters in sf stories and, despite the late start made by sf writers in getting in on the computer boom, it now seems that ideas developed by William Gibson and those who have followed his example are proving a significant inspiration to real computer scientists.Relevant theme anthologies include Science Fiction Thinking Machines (anth 1954) ed Groff CONKLIN; Computers, Computers, Computers: In Fiction and in Verse (anth 1977) ed D. Van Tassel; Machines that Think (anth 1984) ed Isaac Asimov, Patricia S. WARRICK and Martin H. GREENBERG; Computer Crimes and Capers (anth 1985) ed Asimov, Greenberg and Charles G. WAUGH; Microworlds: SF Stories of the Computer Age (anth 1984) ed Thomas F. MONTELEONE; and Digital Dreams (anth 1990) ed David V. Barrett.
   BS

Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. . 2011.

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