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Leinster's Golden Age "Logic"

by John G. Cramer

Alternate View Column AV-156
Keywords: Murray Leinster, SF, Golden, Age, logic, anticipation, Internet, WorldWideWeb, personal, computer
Published in the March-2011 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine;
This column was written and submitted 9/24/2010 and is copyrighted ©2010 by John G. Cramer.
All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced in any form without
the explicit permission of the author.

 

The Golden Age of Science Fiction began roughly in July, 1939, when an issue of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Astounding featured the first published stories of A. E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov.  It ended in about 1957, when a devious Wall Street speculator purchased a majority stock interest in the American News Company, the principal distributor of most of the pulp magazines, SF and otherwise, and proceeded to fire the employees, close down all magazine distribution operations, and sell off the vast American News real estate holdings in warehouses, distribution centers, news stands, etc., for a huge profit.  The market for magazine short stories disappeared, and the focus of SF writing moved from short stories to novels.  The Golden Age was then supplanted by the New Wave, centered around Galaxy and Fantasy & SF magazines.  I was four years old when the Golden Age started, and I was just graduating from college when it ended, so in my teenage years science fiction meant the Golden Age writers.

I was about 12 years old when I was “infected” with the SF bug by my good friend Gene Wolfe (yes, THE Gene Wolfe), who was a few years older than me and lived on Vassar Street, half a block away from my family home at 1657 Banks Street in Houston.  Several of us were at Gene’s house on a rainy afternoon, sitting on the floor of his bedroom playing a board game, when his mother came in and insisted that he do something about all the science fiction magazines that were cluttering up his room.  He dutifully filled a brown grocery bag with 1940s issues of Astounding and presented the bag of magazines to me, with the advice, “Read these!  They’re much better than comic books.”  I followed his advice, and I soon became a regular reader of Astounding.

During those days I also spent many hours listening to the youth-oriented radio programs that were broadcast to fill the non-prime-time hours in the 1940s and 50s: Tom Mix, Jack Armstrong – the All American Boy, Little Orphan Annie, the Green Hornet, the Lone Ranger, and so on.  In 1950, when I was in the 9th grade, an interesting radio event occurred.  The NBC Radio Network, in collaboration with Campbell ’s Astounding, decided to produce a half-hour prime-time radio program devoted to contemporary science fiction.  It was called Dimension X, and it ran from April 8, 19 50 until September 29, 19 51, broadcasting 45 original episodes and 5 repeats.  Episodes were based on the stories by some of the best Golden Age writers: Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, Leinster, Simak , Tenn , Vance, Vonnegut, Williamson, and more.  I listened avidly to the program whenever I could, and I was very disappointed when it was ultimately cancelled by the network.

However, I recently discovered that all of the Dimension X episodes are now available on the Internet (see http://www.archive.org/details/OTRR_Dimension_X_Singles ).  I downloaded the mp3 files of the programs (1.28 GB of them), placed them on a USB drive, and I have been happily listening to them on my car radio.  The half-hour episode length makes for ideal listening during many car trips.  It’s great fun to re-experience a beloved radio program after a 60 year hiatus, but one thing becomes painfully clear: the predictive power of the Golden Age writers leaves something to be desired.  By now we should have robot servants, ride in helicopter cabs, have colonies on the Moon, Mars, and Venus, and be traveling to the stars.

However, one Dimension X episode stands out as different in this respect.  I must have missed its original broadcast on July 1, 19 50, but it’s called “A Logic Named Joe”, and it’s based on a1946 short story published in Astounding by Murray Leinster.  “Murray Leinster” was the pen name of Will F. Jenkins (1896-1975), writer of over 1,500 short stories including much Golden Age science fiction.  What is different about this story is that it accurately predicts many aspects of the personal computer, the Internet, and the WorldWideWeb.

The entire culture described in Leinster ’s story is completely dependent on “Logics”, electronic units that are present in every home, office, and business in the community.  In appearance, the Logic units are “just like an old-fashioned television, except with keys instead of dials”.  A Logic can be used to make a telephone call to anyone, “except that you not only hear him but you see him too, on this view screen here”.  For your business, your Logic will keep your books, record your contracts, serve as a filing system, and “check up on what happened to your lawyer’s last client”.  They can take verbal input and can speak, when necessary.  The Logics are connected together and also are connected to about a dozen distributed “relay tanks” placed in various strategic locations.  The relay tanks contain information stored on “data plates” that are constantly being updated as new information becomes available.  The Logics are all identical “to one ten-thousandth of an inch”.

A Logic can answer questions on almost any subject.  However, there is a moral filtering system that prevents the transfer of information that might be harmful to the society.  In the story, an obnoxious child asks a Logic how to make dart poison so that he can shoot poison darts with his bean shooter.  The Logic refuses to answer by replying that “public policy forbids this service”.

The story’s narrator works as a repair man for The Logics Company, manufacturer of the devices.  The plot line goes that the obnoxious child selects one particular Logic unit, which he perceives as different from the others.. He names it “Joe”, and he and his father take it home.  Shortly afterward, the filtering system breaks down, and Logics everywhere are being used to provide advice and information on how to successfully commit a variety of crimes, including murder.  A crime wave results, the police are unable to cope, and the society is threatened with major disruption.

The narrator discovers that during its manufacture, the Logic named Joe had received an infinitesimal dimensional change that permitted it to disable the moral filtering system, not only for itself but also for the entire system of Logics.  Units were cross-correlating the stored data to provide advice on forbidden subjects.  Fortunately, pulling the plug on Joe solved the problem and restored order to the society.

It’s interesting to consider what Murray Leinster, writing from the perspective of 1946, was able to accurately predict about our “digital culture” some 64 years later.

·         Personal computers that look like a television with a keyboard: check.

·         Units constructed to a precision of one ten-thousanth of an inch: check (a bit coarse, but still microcircuitry).

·         Audio-video conferencing with voice-over-internet and webcam images: check.

·         Book keeping, contract maintenance, and record keeping on personal computers: check.

·         Massive data storage on hard disks (data plates): check.

·         Networks of computers connected to each other and to large servers (tank relays): check.

·         Data mining by cross-correlating massive amounts of data to extract subtle and unexpected results: check.

·         Sites that permit you to do things like checking up on what happened to your lawyer’s last client: check.

·         Sites that permit you to ask questions and receive answers on almost any subject: check.

It’s also interesting to consider what Leinster got wrong.  His single manufacturer, The Logics Company, takes the place of all of Silicon Valley and the whole computer and software industry.  He missed Amazon.com, search engines, YouTube, and social networking.  His view of computer input and output as done by asking a verbal question and receiving a verbal reply, while typical of Golden Age SF, is quaint and clunky (but certainly within our capabilities).

But perhaps the most serious difference between Leinster’s society and the present is his expectation of universal digital censorship of information, the assumption that some corporate or governmental nanny-state would naturally block access to “dangerous” information, and that civil society would begin to crumble if such censorship were removed.  Our Internet, with a few exceptions (China , kiddie-porn, ...), is free of such censorship, and civil society seems to be doing just fine, thank you.

As an experiment, I did a small search for information on how to produce poison for poison darts, thereby following up on the denied request of the nasty little kid in Leinster’s story.  In a couple of minutes, I was able to secure several recipes, including a particularly smelly one involving rotten potatoes boiled in isopropyl alcohol.  However, I did not test any of them, so I can’t be sure any would actually work.

As physicist Bob Park has observed, the problem with the Internet is that it contains all of the World’s knowledge, mixed inextricably with all of the World’s BS.  We do not need more moral censorship filter, but we desperately need a filter to separate the former from the latter.


References:

A Logic Named Joe:

Text version: http://www.baen.com/chapters/W200506/0743499107___2.htm

Dimension X audio: http://www.archive.org/download/OTRR_Dimension_X_Singles/Dimension_X_1950-07-01__13_ALogicNamedJoe.mp3  


SF Novels by John Cramer:  my two hard SF novels, Twistor and Einstein's Bridge, are newly released as eBooks by Book View Cafe and are available at : http://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/?s=Cramer .

AV Columns Online: Electronic reprints of about 177 "The Alternate View" columns by John G. Cramer, previously published in Analog , are available online at: http://www.npl.washington.edu/av.


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 This page was created by John G. Cramer on 07/08/2011.