Logical Surprise

Essay by Paul Di Filippo

The entire Internet, as wellas the types of devices represented by the desktop computer, the laptopcomputer, the iPhone, the iPod, and the iPad, are a continuing inescapableembarrassment to science fiction, and an object lesson in the fallibility ofgenre writers and their vaunted predictive abilities. (Yes, yes, we all knowthat “SF is not about predicting things.” But have you ever seen anywriter turn down credit when they do hit the fortune-telling bullseye?)

Hardlya single story in the genre prior to, oh, say, 1970, exhibited an accuratehandle on computers. As a rule, there were no far-sighted, speculativedepictions of the devices’ miniaturization, ubiquity, influence, and utilitythat would prefigure the landscape of 2010 as we know it. Oh, sure, you canpoint to a few isolated instances of authors writing on the digital cuttingedge. One example that is trotted out regularly, like a token Cassandra-accurateeconomist amidst boom-inflating hedge fund managers, is Murray Leinster and hisstory, “A Logic Named Joe,” from 1946:

Yougot a logic in your house. It looks like a vision receiver used to, only it’sgot keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get. It’shooked in to the tank, which has the Carson Circuit all fixed up with relays.Say you punch “Station SNAFU” on your logic. Relays in the tank takeover an’ whatever vision-program SNAFU is telecastin’ comes on your logic’sscreen. Or you punch “Sally Hancock’s Phone” an’ the screen blinksan’ sputters an’ you’re hooked up with the logic in her house an’ if somebodyanswers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch forthe weather forecast or who won today’s race at Hialeah or who was mistress ofthe White House durin’ Garfield’s administration or what is PDQ and R sellin’for today, that comes on the screen too. The relays in the tank do it. The tankis a big buildin’ full of all the facts in creation an’ all the recordedtelecasts that ever was made—an’ it’s hooked in with all the other tanks allover the country—an’ everything you wanna know or see or hear, you punch for itan’ you get it. Very convenient. Also it does math for you, an’ keeps books,an’ acts as consultin’ chemist, physicist, astronomer, an’ tea-leaf reader,with a “Advice to the Lovelorn” thrown in.

Butfor every Leinster there were a thousand other writers with their heads buriedin the sand, such as the otherwise on-target Robert Heinlein, and his characterAndrew Jackson “Slipstick” Libby, famed mathematical genius whohelped pilot starships—with his slide rule! 

Itwas not until the appearance of cyberpunk in the 1980s that SF began to grapplein a broadly meaningful way with the reality of computers as something otherthan giant mainframes tended by crewcut IBM nerds. But the irony—and the pointof the aforementioned lesson—is that the information about the potentialparadigm-shattering role that computers might play in society was extant asearly as the late 1930s, coincident with the birthpangs of actual computers.

Admittedly, it wasn’t headlinematerial in the daily newspapers. But any SF writer of that era—and ofsubsequent decades—with the willingness to dig into the scientific andindustrial and military journals would have found a rich vein of extrapolativematerial that would have allowed a more sharp-eyed assessment of wherecomputers might be heading. While there were indeed secrets involved in earlycomputer technology that would not emerge for decades, the suggestive,extendable mainline of the technological arc was there for the winkling-out. HadSF authors of the period been inclined to investigate, the whole course of thegenre would have been altered. But, just as today, commercial regurgitation ofreceived ideas trumped pioneering ideation based on hard facts.

Whatexactly were the public details surrounding the invention of the moderncomputer? Thanks to author Jane Smiley, best known for such literary excursionsas her Pulitzer-winning novel A Thousand Acres, we can now get acomprehensive overview of that exciting period through her newest book, TheMan Who Invented the Computer. She follows the JohnMcPhee-perfected recipe for historical journalism nicely and with élan:  take an abstruse subject, research itdeeply, then humanize it tenderly, adding off-kilter insights and sharpportraits of the curious folks involved.

Smiley’sbook is subtitled “The Biography of John Atanasoff, DigitalPioneer.”  And while the namedsubject does indeed occupy center stage, the narrative covers so much moreground than one man’s life, from the early years of the twentieth century(Atanasoff’s youth) up to a pivotal court decision in 1973. As Smiley says inher introduction, the book is like four movies playing simultaneously.

Firstcome the character portrait and career outline of Atanasoff, a cornfed Edisonof sorts. It’s a tale out of Sinclair Lewis, as if replayed by Hugo Gernsback. Wesee the forces that shaped young Atanasoff, his remarkable epiphany in 1937that led to the construction of the first workable, practical electroniccomputer. We follow his retreat from the field, his long hegira in other realmsof expertise, and his eventual return in the 1960s to claim his proper credit.

Thesecond narrative is a fairly well-known one, involving Alan Turing, thesuperstar of the field. Smiley, nodding to the familiarity of Turing’s life,gives him just enough coverage to place him in context. Here we have somethingout of Eric Ambler or John Buchan. But the third strand is definitely theweirdest. It’s the saga of Konrad Zuse, an isolated, eccentric German trying toinvent a computer out of junk parts prior to and during WWII. This bit remindsme of Gravity’s Rainbow, and I kept waiting forTyrone Slothrop to appear around every bend of the subplot.

Lastlywe get what might be termed the “institutional/big business” side ofthe tale. Inventors Mauchly and Eckert, having ripped off Atanasoff, produceENIAC and other computing machines, with the help of the military,corporations, and famous scientists such as John von Neumann, opening thefloodgates for a million digital flowers to bloom, until a major trial in thelate 1960s restores Atanasoff’s honor and precedence. This segment might havebeen authored by Norman Mailer handing off to John Grisham.

Smiley blends all theseconvergent and parallel narratives into a superb whole, as fetching andgripping as any novel. She displays an unwavering, cogent grasp of all thetechnical details, a keen eye for historical forces, and much psychologicalinsight; her prose is a model of smooth transparency. Anyone who wants tounderstand the roots of our twenty-first century digital culture needs to readthis book.

Butif science fiction’s track record for predicting the computer’s path to worlddomination is a poor one, that doesn’t mean the genre isn’t catching on. To seehow computers are being portrayed in near-future scenarios, it’s worth having alook at Robert Sawyer’s WWW: Watch, a sequel to WWW: Wake.

Sawyer’searlier book introduced us to teenaged heroine Caitlin Decter, whose blindnessis being treated by an experimental new technology that inadvertently puts herin communication with the rudimentary but evolving intelligence bootstrappingitself out of the worldwide web. She dubs it Webmind, and a strange friendshipis begun.

Thenotion of an autonomous cybermind arising spontaneously as an emergent propertyof complexly networked systems is hardly new. Perhaps the first fullinstantiation of the trope occurred in Heinlein’s The Moon Is a HarshMistress (thereby restoring to theGrand Master some of the speculative street cred he lost with”Slipstick” Libby). Curiously enough, the same year we got theHeinlien novel, we also received D. F. Jones’s Colossus, which employed the sameconcept. After that watershed the trope was firmly in place, surfacing atregular intervals, with one other notable early instance being David Gerrold’s WhenHARLIE Was One. Nowadays, when such aconcept is invoked, it’s usually tied to the notion of the”Singularity” (the postulated moment when the distinction betweenhuman and machine minds will vanish) and posthumanism, a route Sawyer seemsdisinclined to follow, hewing to more old-fashioned developments.

Sawyerhas never been a flashy or far-out writer. No transcendent leaps or gonzoforays into SF surrealism for him. His preferred mode is methodical,step-by-step unfolding of a solid idea, with verisimilitude given a priority. Consequently,much of the first two volumes of this projected trilogy will strike moreseasoned readers of the genre as highly familiar and unadventurous. I suspectthat even those whose acquaintance with SF is limited to first-generation StarTrek reruns will not have their minds blown.

But on the other hand,Sawyer’s cautious, slow approach, homely details, and plain-spoken prosesucceed in creating an introductory-level text that has the virtue of makingthe whole concept of machine intelligence seem highly probable andcomprehensible. Writing alternate passages in the voice of Webmind, Sawyercrafts a sincere portrait of non-human intelligence and perceptions, developingalongside his likeable human human characters. Caitlin and Webmind mature andevolve in parallel, illustrating both the differences and consanguinity of thetwo classes of intelligence and self, organic and electronic.

Sawyer’sbook is low on action sequences. A bit of thriller-style suspense comes fromthe presence of WATCH, a government agency charged with monitoring suspiciousdoings on the Internet. They naturally become aware of Webmind, withpredictable hostile reactions. But the conflict embodied in their response isoutweighed by the discursiveness of the rest of the story. In true Asimovianfashion, the play of ideas as they emerge in rational conversation forms thereal excitement for Sawyer. The reader will exit this novel feeling that thecomputer—a gadget so fortuitously and aleatorily invented, as Smiley showsus—was somehow predestined to emerge as mankind’s true companion.