'When HARLIE was One' was nominated for both a Hugo Award in 1973 and a Nebula Award in 1972, both nominations it lost to Asimov's 'The Gods Themselves.' HARLIE suffers, like a lot of near future fiction, from being close to what the future looks like but off enough to almost make the reader giggle. There are some jarring points early in the novel with people smoking indoors that really broke the fourth wall for me, but that's to be expected in a novel written in the seventies. And Gerrold apparently got a few things right with his legalized marijuana (hello Colorado and Washington). I don't think this novel lives up to 'The Man who Folded Himself,' Gerrold would write that the next year, but HARLIE provides some interesting points about artificial intelligence.
This novel was definately influenced by both Heinlein's 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' and Clarke's '2001:A Space Odyssey. It even mentions the second one a few times in the book, always a good sign that an author is willing to acknowledge his influences. Remember that computers were just becoming a real thing in 1972, but it wouldn't be until 1977 that even the Apple II was released. All the computers that come to life in these three novels have some similarities that are a little offputting today, they're all as big as a house, they all communicate basically through text, and all have cathode ray tubes or something equally ridiculous involved with them. Gerrold does his best in HARLIE to make the technology real to life, and that might be what dates the book the worst.
All that aside, a little dating is to be expected in any novel written around this time, Gerrold uses his tale of artificial intelligence to tackle some problems that the other two do not. Some people might be put off by the sexual aspect of the novel, or its treatment of God, but for me they were the things that breathed life into the story. From our vantage here in 2012 it's exhausting to read another book about an AI taking over our lives, it's nice to see that even in the seventies people were looking for a new approach to the sub-genre. Gerrold finds that new approach through HARLIE and Auberson's discussions on love.
I'm a sucker for a love story like this one, two older people both afraid of love, and also the general fear of the novel that HARLIE would be turned off in the end. I knew going in that HARLIE would survive the novel, it would be too much like Heinlein's novel to have the computer shut off in the end. Also I should have figured that Auberson would end up with Annie, but it's a credit to Gerrold's writing that he kept me guessing right up until the end. I've read a few complaints about the sex scenes written in this novel, but my response is you should have known what you were getting in to when you opened the book, this is the same writer who wanted to put an AIDs story into Star Trek, as well as inter-species sex. Not to mention the sex in 'The Man who Folded Himself.' Graphic sex is almost a staple of sci-fi in the seventies, and it's definitely part of the New Wave of science fiction coming out at this time, and a brief glance at Nebula nominees from the 70s will show books much more interested in sex than this one. What interests me most about this book is its exploration of love.
I found the scenes with Auberson and HARLIE discussing the definition of love very touching and subtly written. Gerrold gives us a little foreshadowing that the machine might be a little more advanced than the man here, a little heads up for the ending so it won't come as quite the shock. I also enjoy how there's never any talk about whether or not the computer has/can have any emotion, it is immediatelly assumed from the beginning, ruling out one more sci-fi cliche. And, the discussion between the two is actually a good one, bringing up valid points about love, affection, and lust that are still valid today. Just imagine how shocking it would still be today if someone said that sex had to come before love. I love how Gerrold just sort of buried that in there.
The G.O.D. machine is an interesting concept and also provides for Gerrold's little twist at the end, but other than as a plot device I really didn't find it that interesting. I should be ecstatic over the idea of a computer that could solve any problem, and if I were in the seventies I surely would, but all the talk of printouts in cubic feet and miles of wire just sort of ruined it for me. Sometimes a writer can get a little too into the mechanics of an idea and leave the fun of it behind, and like I said I was falling all over myself for the 'love' aspect of this novel that I really just wanted to find out how it ended to make sure they would end up together.
In the end though this novel is probably most famous for being the first use of the term 'virus' to denote a computer infection, without Gerrold we might still be calling it a 'Self Reproducing Automata.' Though in this novel and Crichton's 'The Terminal Man' the virus is transferred through a telephone line it is remarkably similar to what we know of today as a virus on the web. I really like this novel (someday I'm going to review a novel I don't like, I promise) and it's a good place to get in to the writing of David Gerrold for those who maybe don't like Star Trek too much, or aren't prepared for 'The Man who Folded Himself.'