Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 79 / DECEMBER 1986 / PAGE 90

The World Inside the Computer

Fred D'Ignazio, Associate Editor

What Is COMPUTE! Doing Here?

Last weekend I took my family to Atlanta for the 44th Annual World Science Fiction Convention, My wife and two children registered as "fans," but I registered as a reporter and got a badge with my name and "COMPUTE!" on it. Hanging from the badge was a pretty green ribbon which said PRESS.

"COMPUTE!?" exclaimed an embarrassing number of the 7000 fans as they rode up and down crowded elevators with me and squinted at my badge. "What's COMPUTE! doing at a science fiction convention?"

But I held my ground.

In my own mind I saw no problem with COMPUTE! covering a science-fiction convention. After all, I've been fascinated with computers ever since 1970. But I had been reading science fiction for ten years before I saw my first computer. Many science-fiction fans are like me. They read science fiction at night, but they work on computers or go to a computer job during the day. Do they like science fiction because of computers? Or like computers because of science fiction? It's impossible to tell; they are both so intertwined.

The Larger View

In fact, it's now more important than ever for fiction writers to explore the implications of computers. And for computer users to spend some time reading science fiction about computers.

Why? Because computers have a lot more growing up to do. Sure, they've undergone mind-boggling changes since the vacuum-tube and electronic-relay days of the 1940s and 1950s. But this is only a hint of the changes that are just around the corner.

And as tiny computers in the guise of intelligent microchips slip quietly into people's dishwashers typewriters, microwaves, watches, telephones, and TVs, the computer's power to transform society and culture grows. Who can foresee where things will end up?

No one can, of course. But science-fiction writers can take us on an exciting journey into the future and expose us to the good and bad effects of the current computer proliferation.

Computers are changing at an amazing rate. So it is excusable for us to scramble after the latest advances in RAM, ROM, operating systems, word processors, and the like. But we shouldn't lose sight of the larger issues and the more distant future. This is where science fiction can be a valuable aid. Computer books and magazines largely focus on the computers of today; science fiction makes us think about the computers of tomorrow. And tomorrow is not far away.

In the old days (maybe five years ago), some science-fiction writing about robots and computers was ill-informed, stereotyped, and just plain silly. But with the spread of low-cost personal computers and robots, the writing has improved dramatically. Most science-fiction writers now use computers as word processors; many are sending their entire manuscripts over the phone lines to their publishers.

Among The Best

Among the very best science-fiction writers focusing on computers is Orson Scott Card. Card's newest work, Ender's Game, not only won the Nebula and Hugo Awards for best novel, but it was the first science-fiction novel to be published completely online (on the Delphi network—a year before its hardcover publication in 1985). Incidentally, Scott served as editor of COMPUTE! Publications' Book Division in 1983.

Another computer novel to watch for is When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger, due to appear just about the time that this issue of COMPUTE! hits the stands.

And (if you have a strong stomach), you shouldn't miss the "Cyber-Punk" writers, including William Gibson (Neuromancer) and Bruce Sterling (Schismatrix and a novella titled Green Days in Brunei); the computer scientist and mathematician Rudy Rucker (Software, Wetware, and the still-unfinished Hardware); and John Varley (see his novella Press Enter and other works).

Two other highly interesting books are Human Error by Paul Preuss, which examines how organic biochips may someday replace silicon microchips, and True Names by Vernor Vinge, a futuristic D & D novel.

The Cyber-Punk authors are writing for adults, and their fiction may not be appropriate for younger readers. Children—and then- parents and teachers—should be on the lookout for Machines That Think, edited by Isaac Asimov, Patricia Warrick, and Martin Green-berg; When Harlie Was One by David Gerrold; I, Robot; Caves of Steel; Bicentennial Man; and other stories and books by Isaac Asimov (which examine the cultural, psychological, and social effects of human-robot interaction); the newer books in the Star Trek series (see the titles by Diane Duane); Jane Yolen's The Robot and Rebeccamystery series; and my novel, Robot Odyssey I, based on the popular Robot Odyssey I software game from The Learning Company.