For today’s Throwback Thursday, ScienceFiction.com’s ongoing column dedicated to the great science fiction of the past, I thought I would do a horror story, and that is “Computers Don’t Argue” by Gordon R. Dickson.
“Computers Don’t Argue” is a series of letters between a man who received the wrong book, returned it, and then is asked to pay for said book. If that doesn’t sound like a horror story to you yet, just wait. The computer says that there isn’t a record of that, despite his repeated claims that it is so, and it escalates through misinterpreting data to think that he kidnapped a man named Robert Louis Stevenson. Did I mention the book he received and returned was “Kidnapped!”? Well, that should give you a hint.
While no one knows the fate of Robert Louis Stevenson (least of all the worried judge, who simply cannot figure out who this poor victim is), it’s determined that the main character is guilty and will be executed.
Now that is a horror story, especially knowing that could happen to us today.
“Computer Don’t Argue” is the perfect read for anyone who has had to mess with bureaucracy, and wants to feel vindicated for how absolutely defeated they felt afterward. It’s for anyone yelling the same thing into the telephone when calling a help line only to get a robotic voice saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Could you please repeat it?” It’s for anyone whose name was misspelled once, and now has to keep reapplying for credit cards.
And the funny thing is, Dickson predicted it long before one error in a computer record could ruin lives. If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. There are hundreds of tales of people with the same names having to bear the parking tickets of someone else and unable to fight it. People who suddenly don’t exist because their name was spelled wrong in the system. I can’t even tell you for certain that someone hasn’t died from a computer misinterpreting data, or if user error inputted the wrong data.
It’s freaky to think that a story from half a century ago could predict what is happening to us now so well, and it’s just reaffirmation that science fiction is a good way to know what might happen in the future.
So in short, it’s a good read. It’s a disturbing read. It’s current read even if it’s fifty years old. But don’t let just my recommendation sway you. Let the fact that it also was nominated for Nebula in 1966.