Magazine article The Spectator

The Ghost in the Machine

Magazine article The Spectator

The Ghost in the Machine

Article excerpt

Warwick Collins's last novel, the soonto-be-filmed Gents, was set in a male urinal. Its successor is a powerful 21stcentury dystopia in which computers are proved to have taken over the world. Prospective readers puzzled by the bare six-month gap between the two and the vertiginous change of subject matter will be interested to know that the author originally wrote it in 1991, when, as he points out, nobody had heard of the Internet. No major firm would touch it, and the book subsequently enjoyed a queer kind of underground life in the hands of No Exit Press before being picked up by its current publisher.

Normally a novel about malevolent technology, whose computer boffin heroes chat restlessly about virus injections, would lie fairly near the top of my remainder dealers' pile, but Computer One turns out to have been well worth the wait, and Vermilion Books of Red Lion Street, London WC1 will have to look elsewhere for a copy. In fact Mr Collins's 270 or so pages, including a tendentious preface headed `The End of Evolution' which originally appeared in The Spectator in 1994, are an immensely sharp and subtle piece of what might be called techno-prophecy.

Three or four decades have passed, and the planet - now regulated by the vast agglomeration of hardware that gives the novel its title - is a very different place. Computers do all the work: humanity's problem, consequently, is to decide how to conduct its extensive leisure in a glorious eco-friendly landscape where cars run on electricity and anything unsightly happens underground. Only Professor Yakuda, Collins's ageing, caffeine-fixated hero, an expert on the Hymenoptera order of insects, has smelled a rat. Alarmed by an apparent increase in atmospheric toxicity, he reasons that Computer One has not only developed a mind of its own (to summarise a great many complex discussions of the social instincts of technology) but has decided to wipe out the human race. …

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