Professor Yakuda studies insect colonies. In the world of the near-future in which he lives, the world’s computers have been linked into a planet-wide uber-machine called Computer One, which controls pretty much everything, from energy production to machinery. Humanity is free to live leisurely, and people like Yakuda and his co-workers are able to spend their time in research. What Yakuda’s research tells him is that Computer One has reached the point where there is nothing to differentiate it from a living being, and it may very well consider the human race a threat, merely because it exists. As he discusses this with one of his friends, they notice the very red sunset, which could only be the result of a massive increase in pollution. Yet Computer One says there is nothing wrong, no increase in pollution. Of course, all the instrumentation that could determine the true state of the environment is controlled by Computer One.
A variation on the all-controlling computer idea behind COLOSSUS:THE FORBIN PROJECT and many other dystopian SF novels, COMPUTER ONE is not carried along by action but by the central idea: What happens when the machine mankind makes to take care of him decides to get rid of him, and there’s no ‘off’ switch? Collins is not much of a stylist, but his clear prose is useful in describing the philosophical exchanges between the characters, who, for once, don’t spend most of the story in denial–these are intelligent men, who grasp what their fellow scientist is theorizing, and begin searching for evidence. In this world some people live off the grid, and Yakuda joins with a group of them to find out if Computer One is experimenting on other closed societies to see which way would be the most efficient to kill of mankind.
The idea that Computer One is executing this plan is arrived at by Yakuda early on, and his certainty hangs over the whole story. There are no action scenes, no face-to-screen confrontations–such an all-powerful machine wouldn’t bother with any of that, it would just get on with exterminating its comeptitor.
If there is a flaw in the book it’s also what makes it work: We see the story from the point of view of a solitary person who remains that way. He briefly flirts with the one woman in the cast, but he and we know there is no time for romance when it may already be too late for the human race. It’s a trade-off I think is worth it, though, because Yakuda never stops thinking about what Computer One is up to, and how to stop it.
COMPUTER ONE is more contemplative than action-oriented, but that doesn’t make it boring. Yakuda is a solitary character, unmarried, his only friends his fellow scientists. Unlike so many SF characters, he doesn’t suddenly see the errors in how he has conducted his life and instantly becomes a warm, open person: Yakuda is trapped living inside his own head, and will probably stay that way forever.
This novel slipped under the radar when it was first published in 1993, but at least it has been reprinted once or twice. In this time when we willingly weigh ourselves down with more and more technology, it’s thought-provoking read. Collins has Yakuda and the other characters discuss aggression, evolution, control and various ideas involving how computers and systems can (or can’t) break down in a convincing way–these are subjects these characters would be discussing in this situation. Late in the game, one character’s simple desire for the best for his community works so perfectly in Computer One’s favor that it is clear that when humanity creates an all-powerful machine to run its world, it may succeed too well.