Home is the Hangman by Zelazny, Roger, 1975

Home is the Hangman by Zelazny, Roger

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Although Zelazny was probably best known for his epic fantasy series The Chronicles of Amber, one should never forget that he was first known for a number of high quality SF novels and novellas that he produced during the 1960's and 1970's. During that phase of his short-lived literary career he managed to put out about 20 novels, a couple of which won some major awards, and innumerable novellas. This one, Home is the Hangman came in 1976, and is one of two best known Zelazny stories, the other being A Rose for Ecclesiastes. Four out of five stars.

Home is the Hangman is the story of mankind's first attempt to create an artificial intelligence gone awry. Its told in a vaguely noirish American murder mystery style. Alan is a man who lives off the grid, and has the technical know-how to keep it that way. He was involved in a project along with a few others that implemented a national database system to keep track of citizenís movements. Using the tools he developed to put that project together "Alan" is capable of assuming just about any identity he desires, and frequently hires himself out for dirty work that someone on the grid could never get done. Now he has been asked to help four people: A cyberneticist, a physician, a senator and an engineer, some of whom believe that they are being stalked by an AI that they collectively birthed, named Hangman.

Twenty years before Hangman was sent to Io to explore and survey for mineral exploitation. After performing his job diligently for a number of years Hangman started to behave oddly, and eventually cut off contact with Earth. Now certain of the four believe that Hangman has returned to Earth and is trying to systematically murder them all. There is more than enough proof that Hangman has returned to Earth, but the question remains whether he is back to kill, or for some other reason. Things start to get complicated when the cyberneticist, then the psychologist turns up dead.

What really makes this story interesting is not the atmosphere of it, but the way that Zelazny treats his AI creation. In this case Hangman was a construct that could think like a human, but needed to be taught right from wrong like a child is by its parents. To do this the four who created him would plug into Hangman and use his body to interact with the environment and people in it. Hangman was present as well, of course, and could learn by direct experience and by observation. Unfortunately, during one of his training sessions an accident occurred. The four had been drinking and they decided to take Hangman out to a nearby town, and while they were there they were startled by a bank guard and killed him with one of Hangman's enormously powerful, steel arms. To save their own careers they put Hangman away that night and hid their crime. At least two of the team thought that Hangman had some sort of a delayed psychotic break as a result of the murder and the secrecy, and most of them agreed that Hangman was back to kill them all for what they did. And that is certainly the way it looked up until the end, when Zelazny turns the tables on us and shows us how guilt and remorse can morph into kindness and respect. The ending of this marvelous tale is homage to the resiliency of the "human" psyche that some, I suspect, will find moving. This is available under its own cover, and in countless anthologies, so you should have no trouble finding it.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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