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Friday, January 9, 2015

"PRESS ENTER []" by John Varley

First appeared in Shawna McCarthy's Asimov's. It won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Science Fiction Chronicle Readers Poll, Seiun (Japanese translation) awards. It was reprinted by Gardner Dozois, Donald A. Wollheim, Arthur W. Saha, Terry Carr, George Zebrowski, Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Sheila Williams, and Orson Scott Card.
Victor Apfel gets mysterious automated phone calls that eventually lead him to investigate the home of his reclusive neighbor, Charles Kluge. He left a suicide note and his property to Victor. Enter Lisa Foo. Like Kluge, she is a computer hacker, talented enough to funnel any funds her way. She's the only person who knew something of what Kluge was up to. She also knows that Kluge would

In their investigations, Victor and Lisa stumble on the possibility that the responsible party is not alive, strictly speaking. It will go on to kill others.

Computer-takes-over-the-world stories were not new. Harlan Ellison famously had "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." But at this time, computers were becoming ubiquitous--in schools, home and work. Ellison's was an omnipotent behemoth. Varley's lurked on the edges of a nascent world-wide web. The first-person narrative also lends a possible unreliability although the reader is never really lead to buy into such a possibility. In a sense, this nebulous SF monster becomes a shade more sinister.

Orson Scott Card lauds this tale for its believability. Strahan, on the other hand, believes it hasn't dated well. I tend to side with Strahan (who wrote fifteen years or so after Card, after all). Probably the mention of 8-bit computers in the context of artificial intelligence erodes the modern reader's suspension of belief. Likewise, Asimov's spools and microfiche haven't weathered well. But technological possibility isn't what's interesting in older SF. Rather, it's what has been done for its time period. One must plant one's self in that day.

"PRESS ENTER" was a common command in the software of the day. It indicates penetrating deeper within a program, or entering anything, really. But what specifically?

The 80s, especially for SF fans, were never far removed from the 70s and their revolutions. Varley pushed that a little further, with stories that pushed the conventional-morality envelope. Many in the field questioned what morals were necessary. This attitude brought those who felt on the fringe into the SF fold.

Here, Kluge and Foos are also on the moral edge. Maybe they've already taken the leap. Their financial dealings are at least unconventional and suspect if not illegal. Foos, in addition, has no real emotional connection with people. She has had sex with an older man in exchange for education. She is okay with this. Her relationship with Victor is itself problematic, legally speaking, and would rile up many on the political right and left. That this story won so many awards indicates a different political climate than the present.

I submit this amorality is what the reader is entering. Not just the new human world, but also a newer amorality, which is not afraid to murder to protect its existence. And where would a new-born artificial intelligence gain such human morality?

This story isn't meant to frighten its readers that the computers are coming, the computers are coming! Rather, it pushes them into a deeper discomfort on one level or another. At least, that is its intent. No doubt, some rare readers will not respond to it. But for most--no matter how liberated from conventional morality they think they are, how understanding of other cultural practices, how numbed by the horrors of war--there may exist an amorality that repels you, even forces you to hide in the woods.

Note: I tried to get out of the story's way and present it in its most meaningful light. I do not mean to comment on its morality, one way or another.

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