It’s hard to believe, but my father was a computer salesman in Glasgow, Scotland in the 1940s. He worked for a company that sold mechanical computing machines the size of a refrigerator. They were designed to compute an Aged Trial Balance and they were the very latest thing. My father’s assistant was a sturdy young man who rolled the bulky machine about on a dolly. I wonder what my father would have thought if I could go back in time and show him a super slim laptop loaded with an Aged Trial Balance program.
In the late 1950s we moved to the U.S. and my father became the director of a data processing center. One Saturday morning he showed me their IBM mainframe. A programmer proudly demonstrated the machine by feeding a set of punch cards into it. Moments later the machine belted out in a high-pitched whine the melody of “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. My father seemed impressed, but not me. “But Dad,” I said, “The machine doesn’t have a sense of rhythm. It doesn’t know the difference between eighth notes and quarter notes!”
When I was 18 my father had this career advice for me: “Computers — there’s the ticket!” But getting into that field was about as appealing to me then as a double hernia. I had more practical ideas, such as being a novelist or a jazz musician.
But I couldn’t get away from computers. I kept bumping into them in books I. In Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick I read about a hyper-rational computer wreaking havoc on a totalitarian society. In Colossus by D.F. Jones I read about American and Russian computer systems merging into super-consciousness and deciding to rule the world. And then there was Fritz Leiber’s The Silver Eggheads in which computers churned out bestselling novels. How humiliating for a would-be novelist!
The faster I tried to run away from computers, the more they seemed to catch up with me. I finally landed at a software company, first as a technical writer and then as an EDI programmer.
I soon found out that programmers were actually much more interesting than computers. I saw them blow up and walk out the door over a point of logic and react to criticism like a mother who had just been told that she had an ugly baby. I saw them working 36 hours straight, absolutely ecstatic when they had a breakthrough, or banging their heads against their desks when they failed. They were passionate, intense, and larger than life. They were amazing.
Finally it dawned on me. I would write a book about people like these. Not the same people, but imaginary characters filled with intense passion and bubbling over with that odd mix of logic and irrationality. I finished the book a while ago. It’s called The Infinity Program and will be released by the Camel Press on April 1, 2014. It’s about a systems programmer who meets his ultimate challenge when he encounters a sixty million year old alien information system.