If you think artificial intelligence, computer networking, and online marketplaces are new, think again. Seventy years ago, Americans were talking about them in their living rooms and around dining tables. How do I know? Because two pulp-era stories, one from 1946 and the other from 1950, describe amazingly-modern technology in great detail. Both tales are cautionary, and each takes a different view of sophisticated, thinking machines.
In A Logic Named Joe (1946) by Will F. Jenkins (a.k.a. William Fitzgerald Jenkins, a.k.a. Murray Leinster (1896-1975)), computers, or logics, are remarkably similar to our own. These tabletop machines access personal data, interact over a global network, have a central control hub much like a dedicated server, are used for video-calling, watching (and recording) TV programs, online shopping, printing, and many other business-related services.
How did Jenkins guess the future with such accuracy? By 1946 when Logic was published, IBM had already been around for several decades. True, they weren’t building massive number crunchers yet, but their tabulating equipment was already processing huge amounts of data. Speculating logically, Jenkins could well guess that machines would get more sophisticated and smarter over time.
The protagonist of A Logic Named Joe is a computer technician, and the story is told in retrospect though his eyes. He tells readers that he’s hidden away this particular logic in his basement and that he could use it to make a million bucks, but that he won’t because the machine’s much too dangerous. He also explains that he’s saved civilization, and that maybe the best thing to do is destroy the machine after all.
The logics aren’t meant to be self-aware, but something’s gone wrong with “Joe” during construction and he gains nascent consciousness. After purchase, Joe starts to learn with a driving ambition. He improves not only himself but all the other machines connected to the central server. The machines start giving out previously-censored information: advice on murder, how to build advanced weaponry, how to make designer drugs…all sorts of fun things. Then logics begin collecting personal data on a massive scale and sharing it globally. What a nightmare! As the world goes from bad to worse, the narrator, who’s now on the run from a murdering ex-girlfriend, figures out which computer is causing the problem and deactives it. He has no qualms about doing this because no one wants a world run by inhumane, thinking machines.
A Not-So Romantic Idyll
A different scenario takes place in Honeymoon in Hell (1950) by Fredric Brown. In it, building-sized cybernetic “calculators” work on the big problems — mainly how to keep the “Eastern Alliance” (a thinly-veiled USSR) from heating up the cold war. The ex-astronaut hero, Ray, is one of an elite group of operatives feeding the machine data so it can calculate the big answers. (Apparently, back in the day, data entry for the government was a really BIG deal.) The questions suddenly become harder when the world-wide male birth rate drops to zero. With all countries on alert, the big calculator nicknamed, Junior,” tries to solve the problem. Along the way, he starts giving out personal information to Ray about future events. This is puzzling, but Ray’s not overly concerned, after all, Junior doesn’t think…he just tabulates and so can’t be anything but benign and helpful.
The top brass have come to the opinion that the drop in the male birth rate is due to extraterrestrial interference. The President picks out Ray for a special assignment. He’s to make a trip to the moon (they have one-man rockets the size of coffins and Ray’s already made a couple of trips) and rendezvous with an female Eastern Alliance operative, and well…that’s were the honeymoon part comes in. They’ll be the first couple to try and conceive boy children on the Moon, presumably out of range of whatever is causing the problems on Earth.
Ray agrees (after he sees how beautiful Anna is), they get married by visiphone, and off they go, moonward. The destination is a crater called “Hell” where they’ll set up camp for two weeks until the sun is down past the edge of the crater and it gets really, really cold. Then they’ll return to their respective countries, hopefully with Anna pregnant. Everything goes fine until the ET’s show up and take Ray and Anna hostage. Thirteen days pass and the two manage to escape the hostile space ship, fleeing the Moon in their personal rockets.
Back on Earth, baby boys start being born again, suddenly and without explanation. Ray, now officially married to Anna but not really knowing her at all, wants to forget the entire episode. He goes back to work crunching numbers and immediately starts daydreaming about some pretty sexy times with Anna that he doesn’t actually remember having. But, of course, they aren’t daydreams, just his memory returning. When Ray asks Junior about this, the truth comes out at last. Everything…and I mean, everything, from the decimated male birth rate, to the top brass’s opinions about ET interference, to Ray being picked as male-baby maker, the entire ET’s hostage situation (which was post-hypnotic suggestion to Ray and Anna), all of it was part of Junior’s plans. The computer decided, based on a thorough analysis of the world political situation, that the only way humanity could survive a cold war was to unify against an alien threat. So he manipulates the entire world to save it. When asked how Junior got the Eastern Alliance to agree, the computer explains that their big number cruncher would come to the same logical conclusions that he did and they ended up working on the same problem in the same way.
Ray should been horrified by this disclosure, but he isn’t. Instead, he’s so dumbfoundedly love-struck by his memories of Anna and his now-recalled honeymoon, that he lets it all slide. As long as he and his sexy new wife can be together, he doesn’t really care that Junior has taken over world affairs.
There are four years in between “A Logic Named Joe” and “Honeymoon in Hell.” The authors are different, true, but prevailing attitudes also seem to have shifted. In 1946’s “Logic” the idea of computers administrating mankind was not to be tolerated, even for a fortune. But in 1950, it was alright, at least as long as you got a happy ending out of it. Of course, this is a literary allusion to the American Dream as envisioned in the post-World War II decade. But the underlying thought is plenty creepy.
Would you give over your personal sovereignty for a nice house, a hot spouse, and all the trimmings? For many today it might be a fair trade-off, especially considering current economic conditions. But that’s a pretty slippery slope, from there it’s just a few short steps to Terminator’s Skynet…and we all know how that ends.
Comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell said, “Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.” Logic and Honeymoon demonstrate this adage quite capably. In each story computers are trying to SAVE mankind but their agendas are heartlessly rational, and they assume, with logical arrogance, that humanity needs saving and…rulership.
As modern technology advances, we may all be called upon to answer these questions for ourselves. Would you allow a computer to rule the world if it took away all your cares?
Comments are welcome.
Check out the stories for yourself and let me know what you think.
- Here’s a free PDF of A Logic Named Joe
- Here’s a free copy of Honeymoon in Hell, from the Internet Archive (it’s the featured story in the November, 1950 edition of Galaxy magazine. That’s Anna and Ray on the cover.)