Thursday, November 21, 2013

Computer Eye by A. E. Van Vogt

I got a surprise when I started Computer Eye: it is a first person narrative written in the voice of the massive computer that serves as the surveillance and security force of the USA in the year 2090. Every home in “computerized America” includes a terminal through which the computer can watch the living room and front door (back doors are now illegal) and computer eyes are affixed to street corner lampposts, government buildings, and all vehicles.  Many of these eyes are equipped with ray guns which the computer can use to punish or execute rulebreakers. The computer is not only tasked with law enforcement; it does almost all the work society requires, from labor and manufacturing to the piloting of cars and aircraft, to even the composition of books and music -- having been programmed with all the literature, films and music ever created by mankind, the computer is able to produce art more popular than any a human could produce. There is very little work left for human beings.

The start of the computer era in 2059 coincided with a sharp increase in crime and immorality. The computer’s supporters claim this was a result of mass unemployment, and that in time humans will learn to cope with copious free time and then crime rates will drop. The computer’s critics, however, have a more radical theory: that the computer’s biomagnetic observation mechanism drains the energy from a person’s soul, literally draining the goodness out of people!

Among those who hold this theory are members of a protest group dedicated to developing people’s psychic abilities. This group, called the Computerworld Rebel Society, led by their most powerful psychic, Glay Tate, travels around the western states, giving shows demonstrating their mental powers and speaking out against what they see as the overweening power of the computer. Through flashbacks (the computer consulting its memory banks) we learn about the establishment of computerized America and the origins of the Computerworld Rebel Society.

The main plot of the novel follows the efforts of corrupt government officials to infiltrate and discredit or destroy the Computerworld Rebel Society. At first we witness this conflict through the cold uncaring eyes of the computer, but halfway through the book the computer accesses all that soul energy it has been stealing from people, and suddenly develops consciousness. It now has a wisecracking personality and selfish motives of its own that don't necessarily coincide with those of the human portion of the government.

My 1983 DAW paperback of Computer Eye (originally titled Computerworld) appeals to would-be book buyers as a sort of companion piece to George Orwell’s 1984. “Here is a novel to read after you have re-read 1984” we are told on the back cover, while on the front cover Computer Eye is described as “Ultra-Modern Science Fiction for the Post-1984 Era.”

Maybe this is good advertising, but comparisons between Orwell’s classic novel and Computer Eye are a little silly. I wouldn’t have even thought of comparing 1984 to Computer Eye if the cover blurbs had not invited me to do so; Orwell and Van Vogt are trying to do different things. While it does share with 1984 the topics of oppressive government and the abuse of high technology, Computer Eye is equally, or more, concerned with some of Van Vogt’s other favorite themes, like the next stage of human evolution and psychic powers, as well as all that mysticism about the human soul, which we are told consists of energy created before the Big Bang. Also, while 1984 is part of a long conversation about the role of the state, Computer Eye, by including a traditional thriller subplot about crooked politicians who will stop at nothing to achieve their personal ambitions to be President, dilutes any message it might have had about the relationship between the state and the individual by implying that the form of government is not the issue, but which particular person happens to be in charge. Finally, while 1984 ends with the triumph of the Big Brother state over the individual Winston Smith, Computer Eye ends with the corrupt politicians dead and the computer tamed, the obedient servant of the Christ-like Glay Tate.

This is a strange book, with a lot of things going on in it. It held my interest, but did not thrill me or affect me on an emotional level, so I can recommend it, but not enthusiastically. I admire Van Vogt’s ambition in trying to get into the “mind” of a computer, to reproduce the way a computer works by writing from the point of view of a computer, but this does bog the novel down a bit with lots of extraneous and tedious detail. Of course, Van Vogt’s prose is rarely smooth, and he doesn’t write compelling characters, which I knew going in. Van Vogt fans should definitely read Computer Eye, but people unfamiliar with our man Van should probably read Voyage of the Space Beagle, the stories collected in War Against the Rull or the Isher Weapon Shops stories first.

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