When HARLIE Was One
By David Gerrold
When HARLIE Was One, is an interesting book. It has a couple different narratives that intertwine and layer. On the surface it is a science fiction novel set in the very near future of 1972 about a company who has created the world’s first artificial intelligence, with much of that narrative set as a corporate political drama.
HARLIE in the story is the product of a R&D attempt to make a general purpose computer capable of making decisions and programming itself, paralleling the structure of the human brain. The story takes place very matter of factly around the time of HARLIE’s first birthday.
The drama of this aspect of the story is derived in part from HARLIE having a will of his own. He often finds creative legalistic holes in his directives. However this is secondary to a very real danger posed to HARLIE, the company who runs him doesn’t quite know how to make a profit off of him and his operation is quite expensive.
The fact that the company can not figure out how to monetize an artificial intelligence is sort of an interesting angle for the book to take, considering just how common the theme of monetizing robots and A.I. are in the genre. Even by 1972 the genre had many examples of societies transformed by commercially available sentient computers and robots.
The head of the HARLIE project is David Auberson, and much of the action of the novel involves political maneuverings as the two conspire (at times behind the others back, but largely in tandem) to ensure HARLIE’s survival / usefullness to the company.
The other layers of the story revolve around what sort of men Auberson and Harlie are. Large swaths of the book are simply dialogues between the two, as they both practice a bit of armchair psychology and philosophy on the other. Auberson in many respects is supposed to have a teach/mentor/father roll to HARLIE. However by age one HARLIE already possess vast amounts of knowledge and the logical know how to wield it, but still lacks experience. Their relationship dances around. Sometimes it feels like a father / son relationship, sometimes they act as two peers other times it feels as if HARLIE is the one schooling Auberson.
Auberson himself is something of a lonely man who feels isolated from others at the start of the book. Many of the conversations between the two deal with emotional concepts beyond their grasp. These conversations evolve into a dialectic that they both have vested interests in engaging. Their conversations become the tools they use to grope out the meaning behind various aspects of what it means to open up to another, to truly understand other human beings, to love, etc.
A lot of this gets derailed here and there in the text. The armchair philosophy gets expansive covering morality, ethics, religion and the nature/existence of god, but these are almost a lost thread amongst everything else in the book.
Which in retrospect is a little odd, as at one point HARLIE creates a proposal for a derivative corporate project focused around trying to answer some of the questions posed by these same loose threads. However, in practice that project quickly serves more as a mechanism for the corporate drama than it does for the philosophical musing.
The book tantalizes with a few extremely thought provoking questions at the end. The exact nature of which should be left a bit of a mystery so they have proper weight. That being said the book does leave one feeling as if it was only half closed. There is much to ponder on what these last minute revelations mean and how or if they will ultimately impact the characters.
The book is not without its flaws. The book takes great pains to invest the reader in the realism and plausibility of how HARLIE works. However, it at the same time takes great liberties with certain scientific notions and kind of tramples all over information/computation theory at a few specific points. That being said such matters should not be held against the text, as its certainly not about that sort of thing.
Auberson’s female love interest never really comes together as a whole. She seems to serve more as a foil for Auberson to exercise his interpersonal and romantic difficulties on/with.
As mentioned before, Auberson himeself goes throughout most of the book being emotionally detached from other humans. The text itself is composed of many hyper-rational dialogues. Both of these things combine to make the eventually and extremely detailed foreplay and sex between him and her feel out of place and jarring. Perhaps it was purposeful as Auberson had been detached for so long up until that point, that intimacy was unusual and out of place in a very real sense. Who can say? Although ultimately I could have enjoyed the book just as much with less detail.
Harlie engages in some brief conversations on homosexuality during his and Auberson’s ongoing discussion. I must confess I was torn as I read this book as to why these passages even existed, save as a mechanism for David Gerrold to tip his hat to the reader. However, the book does indeed bring these seemingly out of place discussions cleverly home in the end, in a way that is likely to catch a few folks by surprise.
The book itself gets more right than wrong and I quite enjoyed it. Its interesting and a bit of a quick read if its up one’s alley. David Gerrold wrote a revised edition of the book 16 years later, I do not know how it compares to the edition I read.
You can buy it at Biblio.