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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

Colossus by D. F. Jones

Colossus - D. F. Jones

In 1987, in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Ronald Reagan said, "In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside of this world."


I'll tell you what I occasionally think. I occasionally think that if some aliens dropped down from the sky and, using their technomagic, gave me back my 21-year-old body, I'd think they were pretty cool. Now if they then turned around and announced to the people of Earth that they were taking over control of human affairs, I'd have to think twice. But then I'd have to take into account that I was thinking with a much younger brain....


In D. F. Jones' novel Colossus, the "alien" doesn't come from the sky but from the mind of man. Colossus is a giant computer in whose metaphorical hands is placed the defense of the realm, which in this case is the United states of North America and its allies. Hardly has it gone online, however, than it reports the existence of another supercomputer, this one under Soviet control. But, no, that's not right: as Professor Charles Forbin, the machine's creator, quickly realizes, neither computer is under anyone's control but its own. And their control is all but absolute. After all, they control the world's nuclear arsenal and have no human compunction against using it.


With little more than the flick of a switch, these machines abolish war. That's a pretty neat trick, and it takes us back to Reagan's speech: "And yet I ask — is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien to the universal aspiration of our people than war and the threat of war?" Ultimately, this is what Colossus is about: do these machines know us better than we know ourselves? For aren't we our own worst aliens?

After Colossus makes a particularly taxing demand, Forbin thinks, "It sounded so simple, given the power to enforce it." And that's the thing. Human beings do the stupidest, cruelest, most horrible things -- many because no one has the power to stop them. Not without recourse to more horror and cruelty. What if there were someone or something that could stop all that? What then? Would we embrace it as a kind of tangible god or reject it for interfering with our right to starve, maim, kill, and destroy?


I don't know. Guess I'm going to have to read the next book to find out.


And I will, because Colossus is good enough to make me want to do that, though not so special that I'm doing it right now. A book like this, what I want is the computer. I want the creepy takeover, I want to see the power of the thing, and I want to hear its side of the story. (Not like Proteus in Demon Seed, though; I prefer my sentient computers to possess a little more maturity than to want to be flesh so as to be able to screw.) What I don't need so much is a bunch of humans who have to tell or show me how great emotion is. Colossus has both, but it's the prevalence of the latter that keeps it from greatness. That, and the fact that as a thriller, it's hamstrung by its premise: even if the humans' plan to kill the things worked (and I'm not saying one way or the other here), it would take years to pull it off. And that's a mighty long timeline to keep up the suspense.