Press Enter [ ] by Varley, John, 1984
I have not read a lot of John Varley in my time, but I have read enough so far that I think I can say that he is a great author. The sad fact is that I have not really sat down and read through any of his short story collections. That is part of my personal test, by the way. Even if an author is an excellent novelist I really don't feel that I can call them a great author unless the short stories are at least up to par. As it so happens with Varley, I have managed to catch a few novels and a bunch of award-winning stories. This week's novella is Varley's Hugo Award winning novella, Press Enter. The science in this story is computer science, and it is a little far fetched, especially for 1982, when the story is set. The underlying premise is that somewhere out there is a nefarious governmental agency that can do literally anything that they want to do with computers. But it is also a May/December love story, and I honestly have to say, I think I am in love with the May part of that equation myself. She's perfect, and other than for the reason above, so is this story.
One thing that I have noticed about Varley, many of his stories start out slowly and with no clear direction. Press Enter is like that too. It begins as one of the main characters, Victor Apfel, receives a phone call; an automated message tells him to go to his hermit-neighbor's house and "do what needs to be done." Victor, like his suburban neighbor, is a hermit so he ignored the call at first. It kept coming so eventually he got up and went. When he got there he found the cooling, bloody body of his neighbor, Kluge. Kluge had just committed suicide, as evidenced by the suicide note on his computer screen, titled "Goodbye, Cruel World." The police arrived later and found, in addition to barrels of pharmaceuticals, an interactive will programmed into Kluge's computer. In fact the title of the story came from the blinking message on the monitor: "Press Enter," it said. When they did the will came up. The will named Apfel as the sole beneficiary of Kluge, who had considerable wealth. Kluge was a master hacker and electronic thief, and had spent a years amassing a fortune. Smelling a bug the investigating police officer sends over a forensic IT specialist named Lisa Foo. Foo, a young busty ex-prostitute from Vietnam, who managed to survive all kinds of horrors after the Americans were driven out, befriends and eventually falls in love with Apfel, a Korean-War era widower who survived torture at the hands of the North Koreans. As the two fall more and more deeply in love they work out their personal issues from their times in Asia.
The story is slightly dated (it was published in 1982) but at the same time its pretty forward facing. I was around and wise enough in 1982, but I certainly was not talking about computer networks, interactive displays, on-line activity and high bandwidth data transfers back then, but Varley certainly was. Some of the language was...charming, as well. Upon figuring out that Kluge had wired computers all over his house, and that his suicide note and will were on-line, the ignorant police officer says:
"This guy not only writes a note, he programs the fucking thing into his computer, complete with special effects straight out of Pac-Man."
After Foo examined the computers that Kluge left behind she also came to believe that his death was a murder, not a suicide. She found all kinds of evidence that Kluge was trying to break into networks belonging to the NSA. Instead of doing the smart thing and giving up, Foo was driven. She kept searching and pushing, and eventually she entered the wrong site. Foo was working on a theory that the only thing that had prevented the invention of artificial intelligence was that humans had not developed suitable memory caches yet. She theorized that if you networked enough computers together you could eventually create some sort of critical mass and the computer would become self aware. Actually her theory is not as naively stated as that, but that was the gist of it. It is never explained exactly what happened to Kluge, but the theory was that some artificial agent of the NSA told him or showed him something that made him kill himself. When Foo pushed it too far, she shared his fate; someone reached through the electrons of the primordial internet, and caused Foo to kill herself by jimmying the microwave to work with the door open, then nuking her head.
Like I said, it was the love story that I liked about this one. Actually, it was more the girl. Let's just say that she is my type. Brainy and experienced, boobsy and sweet, open to the idea of falling for some pathetic white guy, and with enough emotional baggage to be interesting as a person. What's not to love there? There is a lot going on in this story, but the middle of it is about two compassionate, interesting characters who make love and then talk about their experiences in Asia, none of which were good.
I was a little bothered that Varley left the discussion of artificial intelligence without finishing up what he started. Foo was full of theories about it, but never interacted with whatever was on the other side of the modem long enough to give the reader a sense of what it was she was dealing with or how it worked. In fact, it could have been a human; it was that underdeveloped. Varley also dropped Kluge's part of the story pretty quickly too. Once Foo came on board everyone stopped wondering why he had barrels of pills in his house, and instead focused on what was going on with all the computers.
I think that this one would have made an amazing book.
Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell