Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction edited by Mike Ashley

Reviewed by Graham Andrews. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Q: Spot the year of first publication (+ or – 20 years):

“Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.”

A: It comes from an essay, ‘Darwin Among the Machines’, published in the June 1863 issue of a New Zealand magazine called The Press. Ascribed to ‘Cellarius’ but actually written by Samuel (Erewhon) Butler. Change ‘mechanical’ to ‘electronic’ and ‘machines’ to ‘computers’ and only the slightly archaic style would give the game away. Mike Ashley’s Introduction – nay, scholarly monograph – is full of half-forgotten facts like that. I enjoyed it even more than some of the stories, which were a tad over-familiar to an old-timer like me: ‘The Machine Stops’ (Forster); ‘The Evitable Conflict’ (Asimov); ‘Two-Handed Engine’ (Moore & Kuttner). Still good stuff, though.

Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction (British Library Science Fiction Classics) by [Mike Ashley]

The earliest anthology I know of SF stories about artificial intelligence in general as opposed to humanoid robots in particular is Science Fiction Thinking Machines (1954), edited by Groff Conklin. None of those stories appear in Ashley’s book, which makes it an interesting thematic companion piece.

Ashley takes a more chronological approach than Conklin, with Adeline Knapp’s ‘The Discontented Machine’ (1894) – about a machine that calls its own wildcat strike – being the earliest (and also one of the best). Along the way, we are treated to such reclaimed treasures as ‘Automata’ (S. Fowler Wright: 1929) and ‘Rex’ (Harl Vincent: 1934). J. J. Connington’s ‘Danger in the Dark Cave’ (1938) fuses Golden Age detective fiction with what would now be called AI: “My view is that once you give an organism – be it machine or anything else – the power of appreciating stimuli and coping with them, you produce something akin to intelligent life.” With the instinct of self-preservation, and the means to fight back. ‘Efficiency’ (Perley Poore Sheehan & Robert H. Davis: 1917) is a quirky little one-act play.

For what it’s worth, my favourite selection is ‘But Who Can Replace a Man’ (1958), by the late and always to be lamented Brian W. Aldiss. I’ll leave you to decide where ‘menace’ comes into it. The most recent – comparatively speaking – story, Arthur C. Clarke’s fiendish ‘Dial F for Frankenstein’ (1964), was read and well-remembered by the young Tim (www) Berners-Lee. But the most precociously prophetic story is ‘A Logic Named Joe’ (1946) which deals with ‘logics’ (i.e. personal computers) and something called the ‘tank’ (i.e. the Internet). If you’ll pardon the slightly archaic style:

“Does it occur to you, fella, that the tank has been doin’ all the computin’ for every business office for years? It’s been handlin’ the distribution of ninety-four per cent of all telecast programs, has given out all information on weather, plane schedules; special sales, employment opportunities and news; has handled all person-to-person contacts over wires and recorded every business conversation and agreement – Listen, fella! Logics changed civilization. Logics are civilization! If we shut off logics, we go back to a kind of civilization we have forgotten how to run! I’m getting hysterical myself and that’s why I’m talkin’ like this! [SEXISM ALERT.] If my wife finds out my paycheck is thirty credits a week more than I told her and starts hunting for that redhead – “

But it’s all extravagant fiction – right, fella? It couldn’t possibly become cold fact tomorrow! Excuse me, fella. My logic is calling me…

(c) Graham Andrews. All rights reserved.

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