Fiction, Computers in

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Fiction, Computers in

Fiction, Computers in

Computers appeared in fiction centuries before they materialized as working devices, helping to inspire the creation of real computers and also warning of their dangers. The first fictional computer appears in Jonathan Swift's 1726 satire Gulliver's Travels and has all words of a language on "Bits" turned by wires and cranks. Scribes make hard copy by recording any sequence of words that seems to make sense, thus showing the absurdity of valuing machine-generated texts more than human thought.

Actual mechanical automata, common in the eighteenth century, suggested the possibility of lifelike creatures with mechanical brains. An influential fictional automaton of the early nineteenth century was Olympia, who slavishly dotes on her human lover in E. T. A. Hoffman's story "The Sandman" (1816). There is a direct connection between Olympia and the slavish women constructed by computer scientists to replace their uppity wives in Ira Levin's novel (1972) and film (1975) The Stepford Wives.

By the early twentieth century, the standard fictional computer was the brain of a robot, usually conceptualized as a metal man. The archetype was Tik-Tok, the "Thought-Creating, Perfect Talking Mechanical Man" equipped with "Improved Combination Steel Brains" in L. Frank Baum's Ozma of Oz (1907) and Tik-Tok of Oz (1914). When asked whether he is alive, Tik-Tok responds: "No, I am only a machine. But I can think and speak and act."

The most influential shaper of robot fiction was Isaac Asimov (19201992), who conceived of all-purpose mechanical beings with "positronic brains" governed by his Three Laws of Robotics, first articulated in his 1942 story "Runabout." According to these "Laws," all robots' brains were preprogrammed to guarantee that they would never harm humans, would obey orders, and would protect themselves, in that order.

The tendency to conceive of thinking machines as humanoid in appearance was dominant until the advent of the first actual electronic digital computers in the 1940s, huge machines that did not look at all like people. But some fiction did project computers based on the evolving automated mechanisms of industry. For example, George Parsons Lathrop's 1879 story "In the Deep of Time" imagines vast automated future factories run by a person at a keyboard. Jules Verne (18281905) prophesied, in his 1863 manuscript Paris in the Twentieth Century, giant "calculating machines" resembling huge pianos operated by a "keyboard" and hooked to "facsimile" machines; banks used the most advanced models of these computers to coordinate the activities of this hypercapitalist future.

To some, the evolution of machines seemed menacing. E. M. Forster's novella "The Machine Stops" (1909) imagines a future Earth run by a global computer that caters to every physical human need (except sex) through its automated appendages. Living in a mechanical environment, people rarely come into contact with each other because they communicate as individuals and chat groups through the machine's Internet.

By the 1930s, fiction about human overdependence on computers or the replacement of humans by intelligent machines was quite commonplace. Examples include: Edmond Hamilton's "The Metal Giants" (1926) featuring an atom-powered metal brain that constructs a rampaging army of 300-foot-tall robots; S. Fowler Wright's "Automata" (1929), in which machines take over all human activities and then eliminate our species; and Lionel Britton's 1930 play "The Brain" where an enormous mechanical brain ends up as the only form of intelligence left on a doomed Earth.

The computers created during World War II and its aftermath invited an avalanche of fictional computers. Because the supercomputers of the 1940s and 1950s were gigantic, their fictional descendants were commonly imagined as colossal masses of panels, buttons, switches, relays, and vacuum tubes .

Some fictional computers were global and malevolent. The computer in D. F. Jones's 1966 novel Colossus (filmed in 1970 as ColossusThe Forbin Project ) takes over the world. In Harlan Ellison's 1967 story "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," the American, Russian, and Chinese supercomputers waging thermonuclear war merge into a single conscious entity that destroys the entire human race except for five people it saves to torture forever.

Two memorable 1960s visions of computers came in masterpieces of film director Stanley Kubrick. In Dr. Strangelove; Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), civilization ends because a U.S. atomic attack activates a computerized Soviet doomsday weapon. The most memorable character in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is HAL, the spaceship's psychotic supercomputer.

As computers have become commonplace features of everyday life, their cultural representations have spread from science fiction into other literature and film. Indeed, fiction about normal existence, at least in industrial societies, could exclude computers no more than it could ignore automobiles, telephones, airplanes, and television. This has been especially true for movies. When functioning as more than background in non-science-fiction movies, computers are often presented as a menacing power of the all-seeing bureaucratic state, as in Enemy of the State (1998). The main character in The Net (1995), a lonely computer hacker, has her actual identity deleted from all records by the computers of government conspirators.

Computer games had become a familiar fictional topic by the early 1980s. After it was revealed that malfunctions of an Air Force supercomputer had, on numerous actual occasions, almost precipitated global thermonuclear war, the 1983 movie WarGames portrayed a teenaged boy who nearly causes the apocalypse by playing what he thinks is a game with an Air Force computer programmed for "Global Thermonuclear War."

The possibilities of organic computers are explored in fiction from the mid-1980s on. For example, in Greg Bear's Blood Music (1985), medical biochips accidentally convert DNA molecules into living computers that transmute the human species into the progenitor of "an intelligent plague" designed to reshape some of the fundamental principles of the universe. During the 1980s, computers also became central in the science fiction known as cyberpunk, especially the work of William Gibson, where action often takes place in cyberspace and some characters even metamorphose into beings who exist solely as cyber phenomena.

The concept of existing in cyberspace became widespread. In Tron (1982), one of the first commercial films to depend on computer animation, a video-game designer is sucked inside a computer, where he becomes a character in a computer game. In the Max Headroom movie (1985) and TV series (19871988), a reporter continues his career after being uploaded to become a computerized character. The 1999 hit movie The Matrix focused old and new images into a nightmare vision of a future where the only human function is supplying energy for computers, which have created a virtual reality where humans imagine they live real lives.

see also Asimov, Isaac; Robotics; Scientific Visualization; World Wide Web.

H. Bruce Franklin


Asimov, Isaac, Patricia S. Warrick, and Martin Greenberg, eds. Machines That Think. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984.

Conklin, Groff, ed. Science-Fiction Thinking Machines. New York: Vanguard, 1954.

Porush, David. The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Warrick, Patricia. The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980.

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