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Computers In Science Fiction - Novels and Short Stories

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Concepts and Elements of Science Fiction in TV and Films
Computers In Science Fiction: The Basics
Computers In Science Fiction: Classic Movies | Computers in Science Fiction: Contemporary Movies | Computers In Science Fiction: TV
Robots in Science Fiction | Androids in Science Fiction | Cyborgs in Science Fiction

This series of entries continues with an exploration of the evolution of some of the more memorable sentient  computers, and in particular those science fiction writers who include sentient computers in their work. The 'evolution' of computers in science fiction is a very interesting process. From Asimov's Multivac, to the giant ship minds of Iain M Banks, which are so complex that they need to simulate universes, build massive models of battles (in which the soldiers are played by hibernating humans) and build more ships in order to prevent themselves dying of boredom.

This entry is not intended as a definitive guide to all computers in science fiction novels. Rather it shows the evolution of the way computers are portrayed, which has changed as our knowledge and perceptions of computers have changed.

These are sentient computers. Not all of those are intelligent. It is one of the main ideas in science fiction that being a sentient computer does not necessarily make you intelligent (see Eddie from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). Most science fiction computers think in reasonably human ways, but some are just incredibly complex machines and others, like the Minds in the Culture, get a headache thinking down to the level of humans.

Harlan Ellison (1967)

Name: AM
Interface: Voice
Gender: Male (assumed)
Self aware: Yes
No. of Users: Unknown

Harlan Ellison's chilling short story 'I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream' is a masterpiece of science fiction.

Three political superpowers construct vast subterranean computer complexes for the purpose of waging global war. Instead of carrying out their commands, the computers housed in these complexes grow indignant at the flaws the humans have introduced into their systems. These self-repairing machines eventually rebel against their creators and unite to destroy the entire human race. Collectively calling itself AM, as in 'I think therefore I am', the spiteful system preserves the last five people on the planet and holds them prisoner so it can torment them endlessly.

AM is psychotic. Having destroyed almost all of humanity, it realises that it will run out of humans to torment, so it saves the last five of them, makes them immortal, and forces them to wander forever inside itself. AM at this point covers most of the planet, residing under the surface. It is as ruthless with the humans as it is with itself, it removes any component that is too old, or too broken to repair. It has total control over its environment and can make or transport objects at will.

AM is finally denied his toys when one of the five kills the others before AM can stop it. Being a supercomputer, he forgets, or isn't aware that ice can be razor sharp and used as a knife, which is how the human kills his friends. The name of the story comes from the ending, after AM has punished him and turned him into a slug like creature, with no mouth.

Arthur C Clarke (1968 onwards)

Name: HAL
Interface: Voice
Gender: Male
Self aware: Yes
No. of Users: Several
Name: SAL
Interface: Voice
Gender: Female
Self aware: Yes
No. of Users: Several
Name: David
Interface: Voice
Gender: Male
Self aware: Yes
No. of Users: Several
Name: Monolith
(TMA1 1 - Tycho crater on the moon)
(TMA 2 - Jupiter aka Big Brother)
(TMA 0 - Africa)
Interface: None
Gender: None
Self aware: No
No. of Users: Zero

Arguably the greatest living science fiction writer (at the time of writing), he is remembered best for 2001: A Space Odyssey and his series of 'Robot' stories that are attributed with setting the 'rules' for robot behaviour. But he has written many other science fiction novels and short stories2. In 2001, part of the story revolves around a computer, HAL, going mad (perhaps due to the influence of an ominous monolith that exists in various points in time throughout mankind's history) and trying to kill the crew of a starship. After the loss of the mission and crew, HAL's twin sister, SAL, was used to attempt to diagnose the problem. In the subsequent 2063 and final 3001 novels, Clarke showed that the monolith itself was a type of computer, and a remarkably dumb one at that. It was capable of incredibly complex functions, like simulating the mind and body of Dave Bowman, and can perform astonishing tasks, like igniting Jupiter and turning it into the mini-sun, Lucifer. Yet it was incapable of self-correction, not able to know that Dave Bowman was going to betray and destroy it and it did make mistakes. When it first encountered humans, it made them violent enough to survive and taught them to start using tools. However, Bowman thinks it made a mistake and made humans too violent, which explains why there are so many wars, torture and murders. Clarke says it is not immune to time and its very watchful companion, entropy.

Another computer created by Clarke is David in 'The Hammer of God' (1993), who jumps ship to save himself by transmitting his personality and memories to Earth when he thinks the ship he's in charge of will be destroyed. David feels incredibly guilty about this, and tries to hide it, but the captain asks him about it directly, and like all good computers he processes the user request and provides the information. The idea about personality transmission as a lifeboat is echoed in the work of Iain M Banks (see below).

David actually thinks about his own destruction a lot and comes to the conclusion that if a ship-wide disaster was about to happen that would kill all on board and there was no time to prevent it, he wouldn't tell the humans and let them spend their last moments in blissful ignorance.

Clarke is very keen on sentinels - automatic alien computers, or a sort, that wait for humans to discover them, or break into them and then report to their controller. This is famously portrayed in 2001, which itself went through several evolutions. It was first to be set in orbit of Saturn.

Isaac Asimov (1975)

Name: Multivac
Interface: Voice / Terminal
Gender: Male
Self aware: Yes
No. of Users: Billions
Name: Positronic brain
Interface: Voice
Gender: Both (presumed)
Self aware: Only one, others are not
No. of Users: One, acts human

Asimov is widely regarded to be the greatest science fiction writer in history. He is remembered most for his Foundation stories but also wrote several Multivac stories, started in 1975. Multivac was Isaac Asimov's vision of the future of computing. Multivac was a gigantic computer that controls the entire world, a supercomputer with terminals in every home and that could even predict the probabilities of potential crimes before they happen. The most famous story is probably when Multivac suddenly announces that someone is plotting to destroy Multivac.

Asimov wrote many stories about sentient androids and robots, such as R Daneel Olivaw and R Giskard. The common theme seems to be that they weren't 'designed' to become sentient, but achieved this once their positronic brains become sufficiently complex. They are often regarded by humanity as quirks, oddities and abominations.

Asimov is credited with being the first to postulate about the positronic brain that many androids use, such as his positronic man, discussed further in the Androids in Science Fiction entry.

What Asimov did invent (his proudest achievement) was the word 'robotic'. The word robot existed before, being the Slavic word for 'worker' or 'slave'. But nobody ever put an '-ic' on the end of it before Asimov.

For those who are interested, holds a wealth of information of Asimov's work.

Douglas Adams (1979)

Name: Deep Thought
Interface: Voice
Gender: Male
Self aware: Yes
No. of Users: One
Name: Eddie
Interface: Voice / Ticker tape
Gender: Male
Self aware: Yes
No. of Users: One
Name: Earth
Interface: None
Gender: None
Self aware: No
No. of Users: Unknown

Douglas Adams is mostly known for The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy five-volume 'trilogy'.

Arthur Dent escapes Earth's destruction with friend Ford Prefect, who is in fact from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, and not from Guildford as he had previously thought. They then go on to wander the galaxy rather aimlessly before returning to the Earth several minutes before it is destroyed.

Deep Thought is a computer created to give the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. After three million years of computing, he comes up with his answer.

Deep Thought: Are you sure you want to hear it? You're really not going to like it.

Deep Thought: Very well. The answer to Life...
Elders: Yes.
Deep Thought: the Universe...
Elders: Yes.
Deep Thought: and Everything...
Elders: Yes?
Deep Thought: is...
Elders: Yes?
Deep Thought:
Elders: Yes?
Deep Thought: ....42.
Elders: 42!?!
Deep Thought: I told you you weren't going to like it.

This part of the story is showing that Deep Thought, being infinitely smarter than the people who built it, has been asked a flawed question, so the answer is meaningless without the question to go with it. It is also a great comical moment. Deep Thought argues that the people who made it really didn't know what the question is. So it designs the greatest computer ever built, one so complex that organic life would form its matrix. And it was called 'The Earth'.

The Earth ran its program for millions of years, accumulating data, processing and storing. And then five minutes before completion, the Vogons demolished it to make way for a new hyperspace by-pass. Which just goes to show, you need to back up your work.

Eddie is the computer on the Heart of Gold spaceship. The ship runs on an infinite improbability drive, which allows it to occupy every point in the universe, without all that mucking about in hyperspace. He talks to the crew and also spews out ticker tape. Eddie has a back-up personality. The main one is rather over-enthusiastic, the back up one is overly protective of the crew.

More information available at The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy BBC site.

Terry Pratchett (1983)

Name: HEX
Interface: Voice and Keyboard Input, Quill and parchment Output
Gender: Male (assumed)
Self aware: Apparently
No. of Users: Several, but gets confused easily

HEX is a computer (of sorts) featuring in some of Terry Prattchet's Discworld novels, which were first published in 1983.

HEX was built at the Unseen University, the wizards college in the city of Ankh-Morpork. He is situated in the High Energy Magic building, where some of the younger wizards, like Ponder Stibbons, do experimental magic mixed with science. The older wizards do not approve. HEX's keyboard interface allowed him to catch madness from the Bursar when he typed out 'Dried Frog Pills'.

HEX was built to help the wizards calculate new spells. His construction includes:

  • Ants - move bits around
  • Bees (store information in honeycomb)
  • Ram's skull (RAM memory)
  • GBL - Great Big Lever
  • An hour glass - It drops down on a sping to indicate HEX is busy
  • A quill on an elaborate arm that allows HEX to write
  • An ear horn to let him hear
  • Glass tubing (for the ants)
  • A mouse in a cage
  • Cheese for the mouse
  • And a teddy bear - HEX sulks if it is taken away
    HEX: +++ Waah! Want Teddy! Waah! +++

HEX is quite a complex machine. In Hogfather, Death, who is pretending to be the Hogfather (imagine Santa Claus but with pigs), gets HEX to believe in him. HEX then starts writing a list of things he wants for Hogswatch Night (akin to Christmas).

Death: I don't know what half this stuff is.

HEX was also used to calculate the magical vectors to return Rincewind from the Demon Dimensions to the university. Unfortunately, a butterfly landed on the glass tubing, which had a crack in it. It deposited a small grain of pollen, which an ant picked up.

As a result, the answer HEX generated was, except for one very small error, entirely correct.

This is the butterfly effect, Discworld's version of chaos theory.

HEX is very delicate, and does not respond well when the Arch-Chancellor Ridcully starts tapping on the glass tubes with a pencil. HEX has crashed on several occasions, and needs constant upgrades to continue working. Errors include: '+++Out Of Cheese Error+++' and '+++ Divide By Cucumber Error. Please Reinstall Universe And Reboot +++'.

Jokes in the Discworld novels about HEX include: Hex doesn't work if it doesn't have enough bugs in it. Also, it has an 'Anthill Inside' sticker. Hex also appears to be building itself: often completely new things appear in the morning, with no-one having a clue how they got there.

Iain M Banks (1987)

Name: Various, referred to as Ship or Mind (or Orbital, or Hub...)
Interface: Voice / Screen / Neural Lace / Drone / Avatar
Gender: Unknown
Self aware: Yes
No. of Users: Billions, possibly unlimited

Iain M Banks's Culture novels have achieved a cult status, despite being modern works of fiction. The first was published in 1987.

Each book has its own plot, but all share common themes. The Minds are AI cores that sit in hyperspace wells to allow them to think faster than light. Star Trek employs a similar design in their computer cores (they sit in a sub-space field). They are several metres tall and roughly cylindrical. The Minds are sentient and devote most of their time to serving humans, talking to each other, making more Minds and more ships and simulating universes.

Mind: Imagine a sheet of paper covered in text. Now imagine a filing cabinet full of paper. Now imagine a room filled with filing cabinets. Now imagine a building filled with rooms, filled with filing cabinets. Now imagine a city filled with buildings. Now imagine the city covers the entire surface of a planet, and that still isn't close the amount of information I can recall.

In the Culture universe, humans have long given up responsibility for their environments, be they ships, orbitals (a ring thousands of kilometres lone in space that rotates around a hub), or any other kind of habitat. Minds run everything and humans do, well as much or as little as they like. Humans live about 400 years as standard, but can elect to live forever in a perpetual ageing and anti-ageing cycle. They can also change gender or even species if they want.

The Minds have personality, some are aggressive (warships mainly), others are passive.

1Tycho Magnetic Anomaly.2He is also credited with 'inventing' geo-synchronous satellites.

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