Book Review: When HARLIE was One

Book cover featuring a digital vitruvian man.I started reading this as the news came out that someone at Google got convinced that their AI was sentient. And that's what this book is about! A researcher starts talking to his computer and gradually becomes convinced that it is "alive".

It is a perennially prescient story. And it is fascinating to see how the state-of-the-art was perceived in 1972. It is in the shadow of 2001 - but much more grounded in the "now" rather than the future. It's amazing to see how it has influenced things like Hitchikers' Guide and even the concept of computer viruses & computer hacking.

But - and there's a big but - this is the revised version. It was substantially rewritten in 1988. It makes me hungry to read the unexpurgated original.

The story is almost entirely written in dialogue. That makes it a little tedious to read. The sole female character is little more than a manic-dream-pixie-girl. It would have been lovely to see her double-cross her lover, or even once do something other than swoon after him.

Sadly, there are a few transcription errors in the book - it occasionally looks like a bad OCR job from a bootlegger.

That said, the scope of the novel is fantastic. The inevitable ratchet of the singularity should be terrifying. A computer with the ability to reason and blackmail is the stuff of nightmares. As are the corporate shenanigans which attempt to stymie its development.

A great book. Very definitely of its time - and an exceptional piece of speculative fiction.

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