More Silverberg, this time mixed with some John Varley.
Raw Feed (1992): “Press Enter █”, John Varley/”Hawksbill Station”, Robert Silverberg, 1990.
“Hawksbill Station” — This was a relatively simple plot moodily told. Silverberg postulates a government tyrannical enough to want to suppress dissent but wimpy enough not to kill people. It just exiles them via time travel to the Late Cambrian. Silverberg’s love and knowledge of paleontology and geology works well in setting the mood of the tale. He also does a nice job portraying a diverse group of men (the women dissenters are in another era) banding together to fight the enemies of despair, madness, loneliness, and loss of purpose, and how some must prepare for the sudden shock of freedom. A simple but well done story. It’s also interesting to see in this 1967 story how vital Marxism was presumed to be in the future – right down to having splinter schools like Khruschevist.
“Press Enter █” — Samuel Delany has talked about Varley’s love of strong, competent women and prosthetics. Here the character of computer whiz Lisa Foo with her large, silicon augmented breasts fits the bill on both counts. This story is well-written: fast-moving, slick, exposition which slides down easy. Even the romance works here, and it’s an exciting. This story won a Hugo and a Nebula. However, reading it eight years, I suspect the effect is dulled. This story was published in 1984. The eighties saw the dangers, transcendent potential, and wonders of the cybersphere excitingly explored in sf. The awareness even crept into the general public consciousness. However, this tale has parallels to other sf tales in its plot. Computer whiz Patrick William Gavin is the stuff of modern hacker legend and, I suspect, myth. His gathering of confidential material, financial manipulations, creation of wealth by fiat, his cloak of invisibility in a computer age, his privileged position as one of the architects of important private and governmental information systems was in part reminiscent of Roger Zelazny’s protagonist in My Name Is Legion, a book from the seventies. The specter of a maleovelent artificial intelligence haunting the cybersphere shows up in the slightly earlier Vernor Vinge short novel True Names. As in that story, the murderous artificial intelligence is escaped from a National Security Agency project, an experiment gotten out of hand. However, in True Names the artificial intelligence was much more murderous, and, after manipulating people, came out in the open for battle. The AI of this story seeks, above all, concealment. His shadowy presence is reminiscent of Wintermute, the artificial intelligence in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, also from 1984 and also the AI of Roger Zelazny’s “24 Views of Mt. Fuji by Hosaki”. So, the basic story is not new. Varley adds two new elements though. One, the idea of a computer intelligence generated by a critical mass of microchips in the cybersphere connected (the analogy of neurons in the brain is made) by radio waves, telephone lines, and electrical lines. This leads to the compelling final scene where the protagonist guts his house of all the electrical trappings of modern civilization to escape the murderous power of the AI. That murderous power is Varley’s second new element. The AI can compel people to commit suicide. How is never explained but it provides the air of menace and gruesome, mysterious death required. I suppose it was also added as a thematic complement to the narrator’s experience with Chinese Communist attempts at brainwashing as a prisoner of war in Korea. How exactly it developed the theme of psychological coercion is unclear to me. Perhaps to show that the machine is more terrifyingly effective at it then Chinese communists or, for that matter, the Khmer Rouge that imprisoned Lisa Foo. Or, perhaps much more speculatively, it’s a comment on the innate capability of sentience to be evil. Foo chides the narrator (and her lover) for only thinking Nazis, South Africans, and Americans are racist. She rightly points out that Asians have a long history of racism. Perhaps this is Varley’s way of showing that humanity may not be the only intelligence capable of murder and coercion.
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I love Hawksbill Station — I think it is because, as you put out, it is relatively simple in construction but so moody and ruminative.