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RETRO-REVIEW: When Harlie Was One by David Gerrold

(Note: I am currently reading a rather long book and thought I’d post a pre-blog review of a book I read back in May of 2003.)



BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A supercomputer exhibits humanlike traits.


PROS: Entertaining dialogues with Harlie.

CONS:Not much in the way of a story, the result of it being a fix-up, I suppose.

BOTTOM LINE:Somewhat entertaining. Good backgrounder for Gerrold’s DINGILLIAN FAMILY series of novels.

I read this book as background for Gerrold’s DINGILLIAN FAMILY series of novels (Jumping Off the Planet, Bouncing Off the Moon and Leaping to the Stars). In those books there is an artificial intelligence referred to as H.A.R.L.I.E.) When Harlie Was One gives the back-story around the creation of this artificial intelligence. It is, however, a fix-up novel made from 4 short stories that appeared in Galaxy magazine: “Oracle for a White Rabbit” (1969), “The GOD Machine” (1970), “The trouble with G.O.D.” (1972) and “For G.O.D.’s Sake” (1972).

Harlie is an acronym for a lamely-named Human Analogue Robot, Life Input Equivalents Computer. As the story opens, Harlie is behaving erratically and his closest contact, a psychologist named Auberson is trying to figure out his behavior. The general agreement reached is that Harlie is indeed human because he can hold an intelligent conversation and rationalize; and he has emotions.

The story eventually turns to the corporate environment in which Harlie exists. Financial realities cause the company to question Harlie’s existence. In order to show that he can be profitable to the company, Harlie designs the ultimate super-duper computer, G.O.D., which only Harlie can operate. G.O.D. is an acronym for the also-lamely-named Graphic Omniscient Device. (It seems here that Gerrold only cares about the acronym, not what it stands for). Along the way, Harlie gives Auberson lessons on life, love, religion and logic.

Ultimately, this is just an OK book; not great, but not horrible either. When it is learned that Harlie has more control than his designers had thought, I expected (and half-hoped) for an amok A.I. story. Instead, the story seemed to get bogged down with the corporate politics stuff. Not that it was horribly written; I was just hoping for more in the way of a story. Maybe this is the result of it being a fix-up novel. It was more episodic that epic.

I did enjoy the dialogues between Harlie and Auberson. Gerrold often posits logical arguments, reminding me of James Hogan. But I can’t say I cared much for the characters. They seemed like placeholders. There was Auberson, the cookie-cutter Father of the A.I.; there was Annie, the Girl; there was Carl Elzer, the Corporate Bad Guy who wants to shut down Harlie.

Overall, an OK book. I’m at least glad I read it for background to the DINGILLIAN FAMILY series.

(2006 Addendum: There is a new version of this book available today called When Harlie Was One (Version 2.0). My mediocre reading experience with version 1.0 means I am unlikely to go back for more. However, Gerrold fans should seek out the newer version if the story interests them.)

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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