Acclaimed for his two recent novels, The Rationalist (1994) and Gents (1997), British writer Collins shows a less subtle side with this publication of an earlier work, a talky apocalyptic tale first published in 1993 in England.
In the 21st century, humankind's main problem has to do with increased leisure timeand how to fill itsince a massively networked supercomputer, Computer One, has taken over everything from climate control to its own maintenance. Utopia proves a delusion, however, when biology professor Yakuda, in an address to a symposium on leisure, neatly links Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, and a sudden increase in atmospheric radioactivity to suggest that the master computerwhich, since it's self-replicating, is now by definition a species itselfis taking steps to eliminate its main rival, Homo sapiens. Yakuda and a colleague are attacked soon thereafter when mirrors, part of a solar-power station, focus on them as they go for a stroll: Yakuda's friend is fried, but Yakuda himself, only partially burned, is rescued by "externals," members of a separatist community who belong to a larger network of anti-computer groups living underground and avoiding contact with surface dwellers. When the professor recovers, he makes his rescuers aware of their peril, but it's not until a neighboring group of externals is wiped out by a virus, despite their precautions, that his warning hits home. Yakuda and a team of anti- computer specialists race to devise a means to fight Computer One; as they do, he has to watch not only his former society, but all animal and plant life, systematically exterminated. A supervirus finally renders Computer One nonfunctionalbut Yakuda and his team return to base to find that an all-too-human tragedy has struck.
A chilling story, but one has to look beyond the talking heads and an Ayn Rand style of pontificating to appreciate it.