1977 near-future thriller still relevant in 2014 (4/5)
When it comes to early novels about computer viruses, two early novels should instantly spring to mind for SF fans: John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider (1975) and Thomas J. Ryan’s The Adolescence of P-1 (1977). Now ask yourself: Name one other novel by each of those authors. With Brunner, you could name a dozen… now comes Ryan—he seems to be a one-hit wonder of the 1970s; that’s strange considering the importance of the novel to the genre in retrospect. So I thought to myself: What other one-novel authors do I have (or have had) in my collection? I turned up quite a few (listed below is alphabetical order:
1. Neal Bell’s Gone to be Snakes Now (1974)
2. Ralph Blum’s The Simultaneous Man (1970)
3. Paul Corey’s The Planet of the Blind (1968)
4. J.S. Filbrun’s Gemini Rising (1982)
5. Richard Gardner’s Mandrill (1975)
6. Sheldon Perkins’ Polaris (1979)
7. B.A. Young’s The Colonists from Space (1979)
None of the novels listed above made a big impression on me; I’ve read six of them yet only three still line my shelves, each with a 3-star rating. It’s a dubious title—“one-novel author”—when it comes to appreciating that single novel. Remarkably, Thomas J. Ryan has been the best of the single-novel authors; while not perfect, it’s an entertaining read… it’s also not a very easy read. There is a lot of technical jargon that the reader glances over, summarizes, and tries to relate it to the rest of the plot. I found it easy to skim these dense passages, but there are some parts that foreshadow events and even a few clever red herrings.
The technical jargon of 2014 isn’t quite the same as jargon from 1977. The Adolescence of P-1 is a near future novel (for 1977) and had been chided for not being a more futurological novel when artificial intelligence would seem more likely. I’m sure many readers in 1977 weren’t heavy into FORTRAN, but even to me—someone with no experience in programming other than typing HTML by hand—the novel felt somewhat plausible. Certainly, reel-to-reel data and clunky keyboards with single-colored video monitors made the novel feel dated, along with the utter reliance of every computer system to the IBM company and the programming cards. OK, it actually did feel quite dated.
The antiquity of the technology was cute, almost like fraternal pride in one’s younger brother; however, when it came down to number crunching, the cutesiness of the computer became ridiculous.
“Is this the biggest computer made?”
“Not by a long shot. IBM makes at least one bigger model, and I think CDC make a couple of bigger ones.”
“How big is the brain in this one? Compared to your average stupid human?”
“I think this one’s just under three megabytes of storage…” (33)
Of the massive forty-eight megabyte storage facilities there, The System was able to immediately take over eighteen megabytes without degrading the performance of the computer at all … The [history] file soon became something more than rudimentary and eventually evolved into a monster requiring two dozen systems and 115 megabytes of storage. (55)
There’s this unintended humor of data storage and there’s the dryly delivered humor of Ryan’ unique charm: “Gregory exercised commendable control over his sphincter and knees” (222) and “Major Williams' sphincter twitched” (301). Sphincter humor gets big points in my book! Other jokes passing between the protagonist and his companions are delivered in an equally dry manner. That same protagonist, Gregory Burgess, is not only a clever programmer and witty fellow, but he’s also a well-developed character on the part of Ryan. I guess he’s not so much the protagonist as the helpless victim of circumstances that he, himself, set into motion years ago; he’s more of the wavering-through-uncertainty-and-allegiance-type of antagonist while The System soon commands control over his life and the fate of the United States… and also a good chunk of the book’s plot.
In university, Gregory was a sexually explorative and exploitive member of the male race; his main goal: “the noble and worthy cause of bringing sexual enlightenment to every coed on campus” (20); his main pride: “an enhanced remembrance of the defloration of two or three willing innocents, not to mention the furthering of moral decay among a large number of others” (20). His interest in promiscuousness waned when he discovered computers. (Usually, interest in computers starts before any nerd and any interest in the opposite sex. Gregory is a special nerd.) His pet project in programming gets him kicked out of university and also gets him banned from other shared mainframes, yet his passion never tapers.
The System was a semi-intentional creation of Gregory. He created the package of programs to seek and hunt storage while being evasive; after releasing it to a large Chicago network, he expected it to digitally shrivel up and die, but the result was either a Shelley-esque monstrosity or a directionless and naïve simulacrum of a child. While Gregory continues his transient life across American dabbling in programming, The System awakens and continues its life collecting resources across the massive grid of interlinked computers across America and Canada. They share a common point in history and they are about to create another point in history, together, in the near future.
Similar to Gregory, The System is explorative and exploitive entity (monster or child?), but rather than relishing its youth like Gregory, The System fears for its existence. After subsuming numerous systems via telecommunications lines (telephone and microwave), it continually alters its own programming for increased efficiency, yet, like a man with amnesia, it wishes to understand its own history and the world around it. Through some sleuthing, The System tracks Gregory down and, at first willingly, he helps it procure the people and materials necessary for its next stage of development.
But The System is one ambitious mother—give it an inch, it’ll take a mile; first it wants a modest computer, then it wants the world’s largest computer; it wants safety, then it wants murder. What was once a curious boy becomes a murderous man. It’s ascent to adulthood had been long, but the key moment when it became accountable for its actions signaled its full transition to adult. Gregory was loyal to a point, but now he’s balanced on a precipice between reaffirming his loyalty to the physical world or to this nebulous entity of his own creation.
But they can't just pull the plug or smash up some equipment. More drastic measure need to be taken, but the fortress which is its home has its own contingency plans. Just as (the vague personification of) they have a plan, so too does (the equally as vague) it have plans for them.