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Entry updated 27 September 2022. Tagged: Theme.


The computer revolution transformed the real world so rapidly that sf 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) by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, they failed to inspire the nineteenth-century literary imagination. In fiction the notion of "mechanical brains" first evolved as a corollary to that of mechanical men (see Robots) – an early Cyborg example is featured in Edward Page Mitchell's "The Ablest Man in the World" (May 1879 The Sun anon) – 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, like the Games Machine in A E van Vogt's The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948; rev vt The World of Null-A 1970); or Cities; or even planets, like the galaxy-governing Supreme in Lloyd Biggle Jr's Watchers of the Dark (1966). Sf writers who had been awakened to the advent of computers by the building of ENIAC in the late 1940s mostly failed to foresee the eventual development of the microprocessor; The Outward Urge (coll of linked stories 1959; exp 1961) by John Wyndham "with" his pseudonym Lucas Parke features programs on packs of punched cards in the year 2044. One partial exception is Howard Fast's "The Martian Shop" (November 1959 F&SF), which features a computer that fits into a 6in (15cm) cube; however, the point made is that such tininess (which of course seems far from tiny today) could not be achieved using foreseeable human technology. More notably prophetic – indeed startlingly so with hindsight – is the one-off story "A Logic Named Joe" (March 1946 Astounding) by Will F Jenkins (Murray Leinster), which envisages not only the desktop PC with screen and keyboard, but its widespread domestic use, the linking of these "logics" via a kind of Internet, and even some of the social problems that result when "information wants to be free".

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 (December 1926 Weird Tales; 1932 chap) by Edmond Hamilton and "Paradise and Iron" (Summer 1930 Amazing Stories Quarterly) 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" (April 1930 Amazing) to write such stories as the series begun with "The Machine" (February 1935 Astounding) 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" (5 January 1975 New York Times), 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" (June 1950 Astounding). Another strongly pro-computer story from the 1950s, redolent of the conflict and confrontation typical of the period, is They'd Rather be Right (August-November 1954 Astounding; edited version 1957; vt The Forever Machine 1958; text restored under original title 1981) by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley. Hysterical fear of computers is satirized in "The Man Who Hated Machines" (1957; trans in Time Out of Mind coll 1966) by Pierre Boulle.

The idea that machine intelligence (see AI) might be reckoned the logical end product of Evolution on Earth has a long history in sf, extending from Campbell's "The Last Evolution" (August 1932 Amazing) 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" (in Angels and Spaceships, coll 1954), Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" (November 1956 Science Fiction Quarterly), 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" (in Star Science Fiction Stories 1, anth 1953, ed Frederik Pohl), 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 – AI 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 (December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966) by Robert A Heinlein and the central characters of When Harlie Was One (fixup 1972; rev vt When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One (Release 2.0) 1988) 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 (Summer 1978-Winter 1979 Unearth, 2 of 3 parts only; full text 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" (August 1968 Galaxy) 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" (September 1965 Analog) by Gordon R Dickson – to surreal extravaganzas like "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" (March 1967 If) by Harlan Ellison. D G Compton's The Steel Crocodile (1970; vt The Electric Crocodile 1970) 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 (August-September 1976 F&SF; exp 1977) by Algis Budrys proposes that the dictatorship of the machine-based system might in the end be benevolent. A metaphysical (see Metaphysics) species of take-over is displayed in the increasingly many stories in which computers literally absorb human personalities via one form or another of Upload.

Real-world developments in computer Games have had a considerable influence on sf (see Games and Sports); 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 were significant inspirations to real computer scientists and interface designers.

Conventional computers are now, of course, thoroughly domesticated and their linkage through the Internet taken for granted. Authors may resort to less familiar variants like Quantum Computers when extraordinary performances such as the achievement of true AI are required. The eponymous system of Greg Egan's "Luminous" (September 1995 Asimov's) is an evanescent supercomputer made from light, capable of probing anomalies in the structure of Mathematics itself. Stephen Baxter's Exultant (2004) features a computer using Time-Travel feedback to solve arbitrarily complex problems in, effectively, zero time. For sheer computational gigantism it is hard to outdo the Solid State Entity in David Zindell's Neverness, a sentient distributed processor comprising some ten thousand moon-sized subunits. A somewhat more modest but still vast construct is the Matrioshka Brain, a system of concentric Dyson Spheres (which see) devoted solely to data-processing, as featured in Charles Stross's Accelerando (fixup 2005). The universe as a whole becomes a computer of near-infinite power in Omega Point concept as imagined by Frank Tipler (1947-    ). At the other end of the scale of magnitude, Liu Cixin's Santi (May-December 2006 Kehuan Shijie; 2007; trans Ken Liu as The Three-Body Problem 2014) manipulates Dimensions to unpack a single proton into a vast 2D surface upon which the circuitry of a supercomputer is inscribed to produce – after refolding to its original 3D size – an inimical AI-controlled subatomic particle.

Relevant theme anthologies include Science Fiction Thinking Machines (anth 1954) edited by Groff Conklin; Computers, Computers, Computers: In Fiction and in Verse (anth 1977) edited by D Van Tassel; Machines that Think (anth 1984) edited by Isaac Asimov, Patricia S Warrick and Martin H Greenberg; Computer Crimes and Capers (anth 1985) edited by Asimov, Greenberg and Charles G Waugh; Microworlds: SF Stories of the Computer Age (anth 1984) edited by Thomas F Monteleone; and Digital Dreams (anth 1990) edited by David V Barrett. [BS/DRL]

see also: Automation; Cybernetics; Intelligence; Paranoia [game].

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