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Computers in Fiction
fictional computing in the 20th century

Historical Overview
(For a market valuation of fiction about computers, see the Price List.)
My Top Novels about computers.)

The history of computers in fiction starts with two truly visionary short story tellers. In 'The ablest man in the world', published in 1879, E. P. Mitchell envisioned a version of Babbage's analytical engine small enough to fit in a man's brain. Mitchell's story was unique. Babbage's analytical engine didn't quite capture the imagination of writers. It would take until the second world war and the realisation of the first computers before programmable calculators again appeared in fiction. The first novel that featured mighty computers was Renaissance by Raymond F. Jones, published in Astounding in 1944, but the truly visionary Astounding story would be published two years later, in 1946. 'A Logic Named Joe' by Murray Leinster depicted a network of personal computers. Like Mitchell's story, Murray Leinster's short story was quite unique for in the coming decennia fictional computers would be large, individual machines. In october 1948 Amazing Stories featured The Brain by Alexander Blade, a short novel about a large evil computer bent on destroying humanity. Apart from the spaceship-computers, science fiction will continue to depict large computers till 1986. Isaac Asimov started writing about the big computer Multivac in 1955 and he continued to do so until 1983. The big computer in science-fiction is often in control of a society and it's omniscient, as in Tomorrow sometimes comes by Rayer in 1951, and/or omnipotent, as in Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956) and Philip K. Dick's Vulcan's Hammer (1960). In 1966 nobel prize winner Hannes Alfven publishes a science-fiction novel told from the point of view of a big computer in the far future about the evolution to a society in which computers ask themselves whether man is still essential to life on earth. It was published in English in 1968 as The Great Computer: a Vision. The big computer was also present in movies like The Invisible Boy (1958) and Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970).

Though computers in the fifties and the sixties were evidently the subject matter of science-fiction, literary authors have written about them. In 1950 Kurt Vonnegut wrote a story about a computer, 'Epicac', that falls in love. In 1952 he puts Epicac in a dystopian setting in Player Piano, also known as Utopia 14, in which the managerial class uses Epicac to optimize supply demand management and in which work and book production are automated. Another literary, satirical look at automation is offered in 1965 in the Tin Men by British author Michael Frayn, who describes a society in which human endeavour has become so dull it can be taken over by computers. And then there are the postmodern writers who rewrite material found in popular culture. In his monumental Giles Goat-Boy (1966) John Barth puts the science-fiction motif of the omnipotent computer in a literary setting. The mighty WESCAC is at a loss in a postmodern culture in which binary oppositions are blurred. The novel remarkably contains a description of a hypertextual educational system. 20 years later Julian Barnes similarly puts the motif of the omniscient computer in a literary setting in Staring at the Sun (1986). Due to the subjective nature of knowledge, the protagonist doesn't find solace in the omniscient computer that is only able to spit out facts and figures. Other computer- dystopias are Jean-Luc Godards classic movie Alphaville (1965), an existentialist critique of technocracy, and Ira Levin's anti-utopian novel This Perfect Day (1970), a libertarian critique of a static, conformist, computer-run utopia, reminiscent of the crtitique found in Star Trek.

From the mid sixties onwards, supercomputers regularly appeared in popular fiction and thrillers. Instead of a world full of computers, popular fiction was about the most sophisticated/advanced machine, which often contained the sum total of human knowlegde. But whereas in science-fiction the computer usually has a subjective personality, computers in popular fiction were most often merely machines used in secretive goverment operations and criminal activities alike. Sixties science-fiction gave us memorable computers, like Mike, the computer that is instrumental in the libertarian revolt on the moon in 1966 Heinlein, Robert A. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or AM, the insanely inhuman computer in Harlan Ellison's 'I have no mouth and I must scream' (1967), a story that has been adapted in comics and games, and of course HAL, the homicidal computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In popular fiction it would take until the popularization of Artificial Intelligence in the late seventies before computers got personality, though mystery-author Donald Westlake would write about a computer that plans to kidnap a movie-star in Who stole Sassi Manoon? (1969) and thriller author Dean Koontz would rewrite John Barth's motif of the computer child in a thriller, Demon Seed (1973), which would be adapted on screen.

Such was the dominance of the figure of the singular big, often evil computer in fiction that writers completely neglected the creation of Arpanet, a network of computers and servers in the late sixties. It is telling that Frederik Pohl wrote about a society in which everyone can consult a big computer via a personal 'joymaker' in The Age of the Pussyfoot (1969) and Ira Levin envisioned a society in which 5 big computers formed a network in This Perfect Day (1970). In 1978, the bbc aired a radio series which would be adapted in novels, video games, television and movies. In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979), writer Douglas Adams offered a parody on the huge computers of science-fiction, in particular Asimov's Multivac. The first network-novel was John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider, published in 1975. It is, however, best known for it's early description of a computer virus. The concept of the computer network didn't quite catch the imagination of writers, who were more interested in artificial intelligence. 1977 Ryan, Thomas J. The Adolescence of P-1 and 1979 Hogan, James P. The Two Faces of Tomorrow are pioneering fictional works in the field of artificial intelligence that enjoy cult status among geeks.

In 1980, Vernor Vinge published a seminal short novel, True Names, about a virtual space where members of a network meet. The novel achieved a cult status among geeks, but it was William Gibson who would write the ultimate cyberspace novel in 1984. In the early eighties, William Gibson wrote about a network that 'console cowboys' jack into via neural interface in the short story 'Burning Chrome' (1982) and his hugely influential novel Neuromancer (1984). The console cowboys experience a concensual hallucination of data representations. The map forms a terrain in which people and artificial intelligences move and in which data is secured by ICE. Hacking into the ICE is a job for protagonist Case. Gibson called this new terrain 'cyberspace', a term which is now used to denote virtual 'places' like facebook, though Gibsons vision is a far cry from the Internet as we now know it. In fact, stories like 'A Logic named Joe' (1946), Zelazny, Roger. The Eve of RUMOKO (1969) and novels like Frederik Pohl's The Age of the Pussyfoot (1968) and Bruce Sterling's Island on the Net (1988) offered images of a computer network that were much closer to the actual Internet as we now know it.

Gibson's cyberspace is reminiscent of the concept of virtual reality, a consensual hallucination of 'reality', which was first written about in Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956) and later expanded in Daniel F. Galouye's Simulacron 3 (1964), in which all the characters but one are unaware they live in a virtual reality. Virtual Reality as indistinguishable from reality would become the dominant way to represent virtual reality in popular culture from the late eighties till its culmination in The Matrix (1999). A more realistic fictional account of virtual reality can be found in Richard Powers' Plowing in the Dark (2000).

Gibson is often considered the father of the cyberpunk-movement, but one shouldn't overlook Rudy Rucker, who wrote about mind download in an android body in Software (1982), the first installment in his Ware-tetralogy, which was populated by androids, boppers (sentient robots) and punks. As was the case of with virtual reality, Arthur C. Clarke was the true visionary who wrote about a computer that stored the minds of people in The City and the Stars (1956). From the mid nineties onward the motif found its way to popular culture. Arguably the best mind download novel is Australian author Greg Egan's Permutation City (1994), in which copies of the protagonist learn to inhabit a virtual universe.

Android, cyborg, virtual reality and mind download motifs are common in popular culture from the late eighties onward, but it was fiction about artificial intelligence that stood out. Advanced AI's rule over worlds in the space opera of Orson Scott Card, Iain Banks, Poul Anderson and Vernor Vinge. Christine Brooke-Rose wrote Xorandor (1986) and Verbivore (1990) about an artificially intelligent stone, a computer that shuts down communications. Xorandor is a remarkable book. Though it has high literary merits, it was marketed as science-fiction. Jim Menick's Lingo (1991), a humorous popular novel about a media- obsessed artificial intelligence that wants to be a star also has literary merits. Much less literarily accomplished, but very interesting for it's science is The Turing Option (1992), co-written by MIT professor Marvin Minsky and science-fiction author Harry Harrison. Two of the most promising literary authors, American Richard Powers and Brit David Mitchell, wrote about artificial intelligence. Powers' Galatea 2.2 (1997) dealt with an AI made to pass an exam of literature. David Mitchell wrote about an AI at a loss in a world that doesn't make sense to a logical mind in Ghostwritten (1999). In popular fiction, AI's are usually evil or insane. (Video Games, The Terminator). In 1995 two British authors published timeless chilling thrillers about evil AI's: David Ambrose with Mother of God and Philip Kerr with Gridiron.

At the end of the 20th century, a lot of popular fiction featured computer viruses, internet killers and cyber romance, and quite a few thrillers dealt with the Y2K problem.


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