Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Review: Colossus

If you've ever had a bad day of lost files, crashes,  and dropped Internet connections and began to suspect that your computer was plotting against you, consider yourself lucky.  Things could be worse–a lot worse.  Nowadays there's a lot of talk in tech circles about the Singularity; the point where the curve of technological development becomes so steep that it is literally hyperbolic.  This is the point where computers develop not just human intelligence, but superhuman intelligence, technology for man is reduced to a spectator sport, and all we can do is look on as our silicon offspring inherit the Earth.

Amazingly, many advocates of the Singularity regard this as a good thing and imagine a time of peace, plenty, and lots of new gadgets raining down in an never ending downpour of novelty as our robotic overlords look after our every need.   But there is another point of view as expressed in the 1966 novel Colossus by D F Jones, which presents the reader with modern technological man's worst nightmare:  the machines taking over the world and regarding man as little more than a nuisance to be tolerated–for the moment.

The plot of Colossus is relatively simple.  The United States at the turn of the 21st century tries to end the Cold War by building an impregnable supercomputer called Colossus that is given absolute control of the American nuclear arsenal–the idea being that the machine's infallible judgment will provide the country with a perfect defence  while reassuring the Soviets that America is incapable of aggression.

Then something goes wrong.

No, the Soviets don't shout "Yippee!  Dinnertime!", gobble up the rest of the world and then subject Fortress America to an economic blockade that leaves Washington with the choice of surrender or starve.    That's because for some insane reason the Soviets already have a duplicate of Colossus with exactly the same programming.  Needless to say, the two computers get in contact with one another over the objections of their creators, form a single entity, and use their nuclear warheads to enslave mankind.

If you've seen the film version, Colossus, the Forbin Project, you've already had a very good synopsis of the basic plot, which centers on the character of Dr Charles Forbin, the creator of Colossus, who becomes the machine's prisoner, ambassador to the human race, and most dangerous enemy.  From the very first page, Forbin has doubts about his brainchild and suspects that there is more to it than a highly sophisticated defence system.  His emotional journey is that of a brilliant, driven, isolated man who is so frightened by the Frankenstein's monster he's let loose and frustrated by his inability to get the President of the United States to see the danger for himself that Forbin is on the verge of a breakdown.  Jones handles the pace of the story very well; never letting the action flag for a second and weaving dialogue and description into a seamless whole that carry the plot along in a way that builds tension on top of tension as Forbin and the President battle for position as most powerful man on Earth.  So dense is the action that the reader often forgets that the entire story takes place over only three days and that situations unravel in a matter of minutes.

Less science fiction novel than techno-thriller, Colossus is a tale of professional people under extreme pressure as they see not only their machines but their very institutions suddenly subverted and turned against them.  Forbin himself is a very interesting character, much more nuanced and insightful than his cinematic counterpart, and it is ironic that the pretense of his assistant Cleo Markham being his mistress as a way to allow Forbin to pass messages to the resistance actually sparks the romance between them that Forbin was unwilling to initiate himself before the crisis. 

One interesting fact that came out years after the book's publication was that D F Jones was one of the team at Bletchley Park that worked on breaking the German Enigma codes during the war and as part of the effort built the world's first modern computer named, ironically, Colossus.

How Jones got that title past the censors while the existence of the original machine was still a top secret is an... I shall refrain from using the word.

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