01 October 2014

Books: When HARLIE Was One By David Gerrold (1972)

I’ve never been a hardcore science fiction reader -space opera, yes. I mean, while I love science and all, the problems I always confronted when reading the genre was long, very detailed soliloquys on the mathematical equations of the fuel vs thrust needed to get into orbit of a planet. Monologues on how space travel is impossible because of distance.  I get bored with stuff like that, even though I know science fiction writers (some who are scientists in their own right) know it’s important that they discuss the real science behind space exploration.  

So, over the years, I’ve avoided authors like Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Gregory Benford and many others because I felt I needed a Master’s Degree in science to understand the story. Sure, underneath the science was a human story, something science fiction was really about. TV programs like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek excelled at the idea of taking a story from today and transposing it to a future where there the author can construct a theoretical model about social and economic plights that affect us today. Under the theme of science fiction, Zone creator Rod Serling could tell tales about inequality, war, and mankind’s insatiable desire to destroy one another. Gene Roddenberry tried to the same with Star Trek by giving us stories about racism, the pointlessness of war and how putting aside the need for financial wealth and helping others is more human.

Which brings me to David Gerrold. I’ve never read his books before, but due to my association with folks who worked on the web series Star Trek: Hidden Frontier and Star Trek: Phase II, and Bent Con, I’ve met him a few times. Plus I’m read his prolific Facebook postings (and he’s also the writer of one of Star Trek: The Original Series most popular and favorite episodes, The Trouble with Tribbles) so, in a way, I read David Gerrold. Just not his novels.

So a few weeks ago, I was at Iliad’s in North Hollywood, perusing the science fiction section and stopped at the part of the alphabet that started with G. There I found a few works of Gerrold’s and started to look through them. 

One of them was When HARLIE Was One.

"HARLIE"-an acronym for Human Analog Replication, Lethetic Intelligence Engine- is an Artificial Intelligence, launched Stellar-America and shepherd by David Auberson, a psychologist who is responsible for guiding HARLIE from childhood into adulthood. He was built using what Gerrold calls "judgment circuits" which allows the computer to program itself, to essentially learn like any human being. Over time, HARLIE has become so complex –more than anyone anticipated- that he’s become self-aware. He has feelings, wants and needs.

In a lot of ways, HARLIE sounds much like the Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey –except without the conflict and psychotic behavior (it’s interesting to note, Gerrold released this novel –which, as I found out later, was actually a fix-up of four short stories- in 1972, only a few years after Stanley Kubrick’s movie). 

Despite its age, the novel’s main focus appears fairly modern, the ever problem of corporate America focusing more on the bottom line. The company that originated the HARLIE, Stellar-America, has recently been taken over by a new group, headed by company president Brandon Dorne. The new group is very much concerned about the corporate bottom line, especially the odious Carl Elzer, a member of the board of directors who questions the profitability of HARLIE versus the enormous cost (which, in some ways, is covered by the budget). While Dorne is suspect that HARLIE is not going to generate profit for them, Elzer is openly calling for HARLIE being shut down -which Auberson thinks would be tantamount to murder. HARLIE is alive.

The board acquiesces for a bit, and thus gives time for Auberson to prove that HARLIE is worth the cost of running and will eventually show a profit. So like any father teaching his son the ropes of the real world, David takes his problem directly to HARLIE. What the computer proposes is to build something called the Graphic Omnicient Device (G.O.D.), which would be an extension to HARLIE's brain that would be able to answer questions about life, the universe and everything. 

The question is then, how feasible can this be?

There are a few subplots dealing with a relationship Auberson is having with Dorne’s executive secretary, Annie, and a Dr. Stanley Krofft, who has been corresponding with HARLIE by email, who is shocked to discover he’s been communicating with a computer and who, inadvertently, will come to their rescue later on. Over all, though, the book is mostly a conversation on philosophy, taking aim at whether or not HARLIE is actually human, and what it means in many ways to be human.

I enjoyed the book (Gerrold is a good writer, even in this early stage of his career), but I wonder now if I’m spoiled by the fact it took me 40 years to read it. Maybe in 1972, those ideas were revolutionary, but I’ve grown up with these same ideas done by other men and women, in books, TV and movies.  So when I read it, I felt I knew what was coming, because I’ve seen it done a million times already. And I was not as awed as I might’ve been had I read sometime in the late 1970s or early 80s (I was like 9 when the book was released in July of 1972). 

After I finished the book, I discovered that in 1988 Gerrold released a revised version of this book, taking out some computer aspects that were dropped in those sixteen years (and, apparently, taking out all references to marijuana, which the author projected would be legal in the future) and streamlined the narrative and changed the ending. He also changed HARLIE’s acronym to Human Analog Replication, Lethetic Intelligence Engine.

Since I don’t own an e-reader, I guess I’m going to have to search Albris to find paperback version -I am curious to see what he did change. Also, one of the reasons I read this was because I also want to read his The Dingilliad series, and HARLIE makes an appearance in those novels. So I just wanted to get a baseline understanding of this AI.

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