Computerworld by AE Van Vogt (book review).

In a previous review, I mentioned how often one stumbles upon a previously overlooked title while perusing an author’s list of works. This time, I came across AE Van Vogt’s ‘Computerworld.’ First published by DAW in 1984, the book I’m reviewing is the New English Library’s 1986 UK edition.

This narrative is unique, written from the perspective of an A.I. that governs an entire city. I had not yet opened this book when I wrote my own A.I. story last month. Considering the current prominence of AI in the news, it’s impressive to note that Van Vogt pioneered this theme nearly 40 years ago.

The story also delves into a brewing rebellion, with the AI—never given a personal name—attempting to resolve the escalating tensions. On one side, it’s dealing with the military, led by Colonel Yahco Smith, and on the other, it’s grappling with the Computerworld Rebel Society, led by an apparent shapeshifter named Glay Tate. The AI’s capacity to identify individuals by bio-magnetic energy offers an advantage, but it doesn’t freely share what it learns unless explicitly asked.

Van Vogt’s storytelling is not straightforward. Although the AI isn’t programmed for polite language, it’s equipped with a selection of ‘earthly curses’—at least 36 of them—to use as substitutes in its dialogue. Over the course of the narrative, the AI begins to take on human-like qualities as it picks up on human mannerisms.

Without revealing too much, there’s a critical point where Tate and Smith have a conversation they don’t want the AI to comprehend. To be honest, I’m not even sure if I fully grasp their dialogue today, but they both conclude that the AI has not been entirely truthful with them. This deceit becomes evident later in the story when the AI detaches from a submarine and maintains two hydrogen bomb missiles at altitude.

I get the impression that Van Vogt was attempting to visualize how a real-life AI might multitask—managing a city while focusing on specific events simultaneously. Translating this concept into words is challenging, especially since Van Vogt, known for his meticulous research, likely wanted to avoid retreading paths explored by other SF authors like Clifford Simak. An underlying theme is the AI’s seemingly rational actions within its omnipresent ‘Eye-Os’ vision across the city.

Given our contemporary understanding of computer systems, it’s easy to spot the technological limitations that existed over 40 years ago. Yet the warning about the dangers of over-reliance on AI remains relevant and offers a compelling reason to read this book—it’s a reminder of how long ago these concerns were first articulated.

GF Willmetts

June 2023

(pub: NEL, 1986. 203 page paperback. Price: varies. ISBN: 0-450-05904-9)


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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