Thinking Machines and Thoughtless People: more of why I love sf/f

Hardcover copy of the original version of David Gerrold's When Harlie Was One.
Hardcover copy of the original version of David Gerrold’s When Harlie Was One.
I was thirteen or fourteen years old when I found the copy of When Harlie Was One in the public library. The book jacket described an intelligent machine that has to prove he is a person or be shut down. It sounded really cool. This was during a period in my life where I was literally reading at least one entire book every day. I visited the library constantly, turning in a pile of books I’d finished every few days and checking out more. I read during every free moment. I even read while I was walking to school or while walking home. Yep, I was that kid, walking down the sidewalk with my nose stuck in a book. Books weren’t my only friends, but they were my best friends.

Thinking back, I’m sort of surprised that particular public library in that tiny town had this book. It had only been published a year or two previously. Most of the science fiction they had was stuff that had been around for much longer. Of course, When Harlie Was One had been nominated in the best novel category for both the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award (it won neither) not long before the library acquired it, so maybe that’s why the librarian who ordered new books picked it. I don’t know…

At the time I did not know that the author, David Gerrold was also the writer who had penned the much beloved Star Trek original series episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” I think it’s a good thing I didn’t, because if I had, I might have expected Harlie… to be a humorous book.

The book is told from the point of view of David Auberson, a psychologist who has been brought onto an Artificial Intelligence project in order to help teach the A.I. and evaluate its development. He is aided in this by a computer scientist, Don Hadley. But most of the early part of the book focuses on the relationship between Auberson and H.A.R.L.I.E. (the Human Analog Robot Life Input Equivalents). They have numerous philosophical discussions about the nature of humanity, the existence of god, the meaning of morality, and so on. And while that might not sound terribly exciting, Gerrold managed to make it intriguing.

There is a change in the leadership of the corporation that is funding the H.A.R.L.I.E. project, and the new folks in charge aren’t interested in pure research that doesn’t turn an immediate profit. This kicks off a series of events that include a romance developing between Auberson and Annie Stimson (the executive secretary of the corporation). There is a fun subplot with a professor that Harlie has secretly been corresponding with for months who thinks that Harlie is just an extraordinarily smart person. There is a certain amount of corporate intrigue. And there is a solution to the problem of Harlie’s existence.

I had three problems with this book, initially. One was that while I was reading it I kept having this nagging feeling that I had read it before. The second problem was that the romance between Auberson and Stimson just didn’t work for me. The other was that I was not terribly happy with the ending. I was so unhappy with the ending, that I set aside the murder mystery that I had been writing at the time and began writing my own version of Harlie’s story that would end very differently.

It wasn’t long after I read the book that I figured out the first “problem.” The novel was a fix-up. Over the course of the three years before the novel was published, Gerrold sold four different short stories featuring Harlie and Auberson to Galaxy magazine. Galaxy was the magazine one of my grandparents had bought me a subscription for my twelfth birthday—a subscription I renewed with some of my birthday money for the next several years. The novel combined the events of all four short stories into a single narrative (with some changes and a lot more detail). I found that I had at least two of the short stories in my pile of Galaxy back issues, and I had read them before.

I think the romance subplot didn’t work because Auberson didn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would fall in love and make a move on the object of his love. He was a bit too paranoid and indecisive, always spending what seemed to me too much time mulling things over before taking action. I could see someone who was interested in him making the first move… but I was having trouble understanding why anyone would be interested in him. This could be because Gerrold was so focused on making Harlie seem real and believable, while not just being a human personality slapped on a machine, that Auberson wasn’t as fleshed out as he ought to have been.

And the ending? Well, Gerrold wasn’t happy with it, ether. In 1988 he released a revised version of the book, entitled When Harlie Was One Version 2.0. At the time, he said that he wanted to update the computer science, because so much had changed since 1972. But he also changed the ending significantly.

The book has one other distinction: it is generally credited with having introduced the notion of a computer virus.

In the years since, Gerrold has written for a lot of other television shows, including for a while being a staff writer for Star Trek: the Next Generation. One of the reasons he left the latter series in a rather public way was because a storyline he had written that would finally introduce gay characters into the Star Trek universe had been rejected by the network (it’s the 21st Century, and Star Trek’s egalitarian society still hasn’t had gay characters; yes, there as some places where they edged around it, but it should be a major embarrassment to someone that they still aren’t there). Gerrold has, incidentally, also come out as gay himself. He eventually did win both a Nebula and a Hugo in 1995 for a novelette, “The Martian Child” which is about a single gay man who adopts a kid who insists that he’s actually a Martian (the movie is not faithful to the book). Plus he’s written several series of sci fi novels that have all done relatively well.

I met David Gerrold once in person, when he was a guest at NorWesCon. It wasn’t just a quick exchange of words at an autograph table. For several minutes (under circumstances that would be a long digression to explain) in the lobby on the last day of the convention, he joined a group of fans I was in, and wound up looking at the artwork and world-building we had been doing on our little sci fi fannish project that turned into a shared universe fanzine that I’ve been the editor-in-chief of for the last twenty years. I don’t expect that he remembers us at all, but I remember the apparently sincere encouragement he gave us to continue our work.

Even though I was unhappy with the ending, When Harlie Was One stuck with me, and influenced a lot of what I wrote in my attempts at sci fi during the next several years. At the time, besides giving me the motivation to try to write my own story about an A.I., it also gave me another perspective on what we mean by personhood, the nature of morality, and even what we might mean by the concept of god. It was another key part in my unraveling of the identity my church and parents expected me to have as I came to terms with being queer… among other things.

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