I had a most delightful holiday read: a science fiction novel named Specific Impulse by Charles Justiz.
Justiz is a longtime NASA pilot who also holds a PhD in engineering. He lives in Seabrook, Texas with his wife Dayna Steele and their three sons. A prolific writer of technical papers on space-related issues, Justiz is a longtime fan of science fiction and has written an action packed thriller which is the first installment of a trilogy.
The human characters in the novel could be his peers in the space program and have all the wit and style of the finest adventurers in fiction, but his most interesting character is a non-human sentient computer named FRED.
FRED is an acronym for Friggin’ Ridiculous Economic Disaster, as he first was called by his human creators - until he was brought to life by an astute expert in mechanical intelligence. As other sentient computers in science fiction before him, FRED exceeded the capacity his creators had intended and became a larger than life character.
As FRED’s story unfolded I was reminded of the first sentient computer I met in science fiction: Mike, a creation of Robert Heinlein in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, in 1966. Like Mike, FRED was able to tap the resources of all other computers to achieve the goals of his human friends; albeit Mike did this decades before the Internet was even conceived.
Mike was instrumental in victory for a lunar revolution against an oppressive regime on Earth; and FRED appears to be on his way to saving Earth from a still undefined threat from deep outer space, as the trilogy unfolds.
Mike’s human buddy first noticed that the computer was alive when it began playing practical jokes on the Lunar Authority. FRED ponders whether he is experiencing human emotions as he shares "close calls" with his human partners.
Artificial intelligence has played an integral part in the evolution of science fiction. Both Mike and FRED remained in their computer boxes as they interacted with humans. Others, such as Isaac Asimov’s robots and Star Trek’s Data, took humanoid form. HAL, of 2001 A Space Odyssey, developed a really sinister personality. Sentient computers in science fiction are complex beings.
I once had the pleasure of meeting Majel Roddenberry, the wife of the creator of Star Trek and the voice of the computers of the Starship Enterprise for many years. She said that her delivery evolved throughout the years, from a disembodied computer-generated metallic voice to a warm feminine manifestation toward the end. It is ironic that Majel was eventually replaced in the series by an actual computerized voice.
I enjoyed Specific Impulse very much, especially the human adventures and a subtle romantic plot. When I had to put the book down from time to time, to attend to daily business, I was eager to pick it up to return to the story. I am looking forward to the next two installments of the trilogy.
For more information about Specific Impulse or Charles Justiz visit http://charlesjustiz.com/