A week or two ago, I heard a radio interview from the streets of a town in Wales, taking soundings of local views about the current UK elections. All politicians were as bad as each other, was the opinion of one man, not very original in itself, but he then rather startlingly went on to propose (quite seriously as far as I could tell) that we get rid of the lot of them and replace them with a computer.
He obviously didn’t read enough SF. If we had a computer to run the country (and there’s an SF short story right there, though I’m sure it’s been done already!), someone would have to decide the parameters and priorities it would apply. That someone, or perhaps more likely group of someones, would in turn have to be chosen in some way. There would have to be some means of doing this, some rules about how disagreements would be resolved and different opinions reflected, some means of representing the interests of the various stakeholders and then… Oh, hang on, we’ve reinvented politics.
Perhaps, though, this interviewee had in mind a very sophisticated computer, more sophisticated than any that now exist, which could be trusted to work out its own priorities based on pure reason, coming up with final answers to ancient questions like the correct balance to be struck between individual freedom and the needs of the community. A bit like the one in the song Saviour Machine by David Bowie whose ‘logic stopped war, gave them food…’ (Though, in the very next line, the saviour machine ‘cried in its boredom/ “Please don’t believe in me, please disagree with me/ Life is too easy, a plague seems quite feasible now/ or maybe a war, or I may kill you all…”‘ )
I bring this up because it’s relevant to my previous post in which I discussed among other things, the origins of my Holy Machine and the way that ideas recur in different stories, partly through conscious or unconscious imitation, but also partly through a form of parallel evolution: ideas may recur simply because they come out of our common human experience.
So what makes us think of a saviour machine?
The origins of my own holy machine go back a long way to a fragment of an idea for a story that I must have had in the early eighties. I had a mental picture of a robot, a beautiful silver humanoid machine, riding on the back of a large white horse through a forest in spring, with the sunlight dappling its skin, as it made its way through a bucolic and utopian future England. It’s quite possible, now I think about it, that the image came from some poster or album cover, though as far as I know I made it up.
Anyway, I never completed the story, but the image of the beautiful sun-dappled robot appeared as a dream sequence (minus the horse), in my short story ‘La Macchina’ and I then recycled it in the novel, the night after George Simling first hears about the mysterious holy machine that’s preaching to crowds of converts along the Dalmatian coast. (When he finally meets the machine itself, it’s much less beautiful than it looked in his dream.)
My original idea was of a robot saint, built to be intelligent but free from the destructive impulses we carry because our evolutionary history. And I suppose that was pretty much what that Welsh man was thinking about when he proposed replacing politicians with a saviour machine. I guess that’s a pretty ancient human longing, the desire for some wise and powerful external agency that will step in and free us from the brutal mess we keep making because of our biological limitations.
Sometimes it feels like we’re children, completely out of our depth, longing for a grownup to take charge. (Even Le Guin’s anarchist utopia in The Dispossessed required an impartial computer to make it all work.) In the past that powerful external agency would have been God. Now, it seems, in place of a deus ex machina, we have begun to dream of a machina ex machina.
For what it’s worth, my own holy machine ended up telling people that their biology was indispensible. Life is meaningless without the needs and longings and fears that biology has endowed us with. Not so different from what Bowie’s machine concluded.