The Trouble with Gerrold: The 50 most memorable computers (and robots) in science fiction, part one
July 5, 2012 —
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All great ideas start as conversations. “I hate having to...” “I wish I could...” “Wouldn’t it be neat if there were a way to...”
Long before there were computers, there were lots of different conversations about computers, what they might be, what they might do, how we would use them, and how they would use us. The computers we use today can trace their lineage back to punch cards for controlling looms, to Hollerith cards for processing census data, to the Babbage machine, to the bombes that Bell Labs and National Cash Register built for WWII code-breaking, to the invention of Boolean logic, vacuum tubes, transistors, integrated circuit chips, and ultimately the multicore processors we use today.
For the longest time, there wasn’t such a thing as computer science. There was a branch of mathematics that dealt with logic systems, but that existed somewhere in the realm between philosophy and puzzles: If the man who lives in the green house drives a blue car, then which twin is lying? So for the longest time, most of the conversations about computers existed in the realm of science fiction.
Early tales about computers were purely speculative, informed more by imagination than by technology, but as the possibilities of information processing expanded beyond simple data diddling, so did the scale of the stories.
Here, in part one, we list 25 of the 50 most memorable computers in science fiction.
The Machine. E.M. Forster's short story from 1909, "The Machine Stops," gave us the first real computer in literature. The Machine was a vast worldwide device that provided all the necessary services of life support for humanity, plus e-mail and entertainment. Considering the year it was written, when air travel, automobiles and electricity were not yet commonplace, this is one of the most visionary tales ever written.
Helga. In 1927, legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang created the classic vision of the future, “Metropolis.” The film is still admired today, and almost all of the lost footage has been found and restored to the most recent Blu-ray release, finally giving us a sense of Lang’s original vision. In that film, Rotwang, the mad scientist, creates a fantastic robot called Helga, who later masquerades as a human to stir up revolution among the workers who toil feverishly inside the giant machineries of the city.
The worldwide network in “For Us, The Living.” Robert A. Heinlein’s first novel, “For Us, The Living,” was written in 1938, but remained unpublished until 2003, possibly because some of its content may have been too risqué for contemporary readers, (and even the standards of what was allowed to be mailed through the US Postal Service). The story tells of a 1939 man who awakens in 2086, and it portrays a vastly different future, including a worldwide communication system that the female lead uses for phone calls, shopping, news, entertainment, and the production and sale of dance videos.
Positronic Brains. Isaac Asimov began writing about robots for editor John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction in 1941. His first story was “Runaround.” Asimov is fairly credited with the invention of the word “robotics” as well as the Three Laws Of Robotics. (Later, he added a zeroth law.)
Law Zeroth: A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
Law One: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, unless this would violate a higher-order law.
Law Two: A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with a higher-order law.
Law Three: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with a higher-order law.
Joe. Murray Leinster, often called “the dean of science fiction” until Robert A. Heinlein took that title away from him, accurately described the first real personal computer in “A Logic Named Joe,” published in the March 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. A “logic” was a television screen with a keyboard attached, connected to a worldwide information network. It provided news, shopping, encyclopedic answers, video phone calls, entertainment and more—including porn. The story is told from a service technician’s point of view and tells what happens the day that something in one of the logics triggers an awakening throughout the entire network.