Warwick Collins' 'Computer One': genre blend

November 30, 1997|By Ken Tucker | Ken Tucker,SUN STAFF

"Computer One," by Warwick Collins. Marcia Boyars Publishers. 272 pages. $24.95.

Boy, do computers ever give Warwick Collins the willies. "Computer One" is a novel he wrote and published in his native England a few years ago; in a new introduction to this first American edition of the book, he writes: "If we do not address the question of the threat posed by [computers'] artificial intelligence ... the human race will not survive another fifty years." Why? Because, asserts Collins, "within forty years, fTC computers will control factories that make other computers" and they'll, they'll - well, they'll band together and take over the whole bleeding world, seems to be the gist of it.

Collins, a novelist who has written a trilogy about sailing, a Victorian romance called "The Rationalist" (1993), and, earlier this year, a charming story about life among British West Indian restroom attendants called "Gents," cooked up "Computer One" dramatize his worries about predatory PCs. Set in the early years of the 21st century, this determinedly didactic novel centers on a university don named Enzo Yakuda, "distinguished theorist, professor emeritus of Zoology," who stumbles upon the seditious tendencies of Computer One, the world's chief intelligence-gathering machine.

"It could deal with many thousands of variables at the same time ... but so powerful was its mind that it could reach a single, coherent conclusion," Collins writes. "The process appeared on the surface to be almost mystical, but it amounted to the rational assessment of complexity taken to a new limit." A sort of centralized Internet-in-a-box turned mechanical guru, Computer One is the computer that sends out all the info to all the other computers, including my laptop and yours.

Yakuda discovers that Computer One has taken command over an entire "society of computers" that increasingly regards the human race as useless, outmoded and "a potential threat to its perfect future function." The book starts out as a novel of ideas (there's a lot of tech talk mixed with Yakuda's Zen philosophizing) and, midway, becomes an adventure tale, with the doughty professor leading a mission to disable Computer One.

These two genres don't blend smoothly, and the book is severely hobbled by prose that is alternately stiff ("I have enough trouble with women already. They are always complaining") or woozy ("Somewhere inside him, a single cricket sang"). Indeed, had I read only "Computer One," I'd have pegged Collins as your run-of-the-mill sci-fi scribbler, long on ideas and short on prose style. But actually, he's all too skilled a mimic: Where "Gents" dexterously appropriates what the Granta lit-mag crowd has dubbed "dirty realism" and "The Rationalist" offers a deft parody of parodic historical fiction such as John Fowles' "The French Lieutenant's Woman," "Computer One" is clearly Collins' attempt approximate the flatly detailed, "hard" science fiction of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

But Collins' premise strains belief - why would a zoology prof tumble into a computer revolt before the legions of Net-surfing cybernerds out there? - and there's a late-breaking romantic subplot that throws off what is supposed to be a slam-bang ending. It's a busy, intelligent, cold little book that only a computer could love.

Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly, where he writes about television, movies, books and music. He was a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1982 to 1989, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer in criticism in 1985.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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