James P. Hogan
The Two Faces of Tomorrow (1979)
Reviewed: 1997-05-19

Back at the time this novel was written, Hogan was one of very few authors who actually knew how computers worked or how they were used in practice, and what the areas of research and projected future developments were. The result is a computer novel that now, almost twenty years later, has not only remained readable even for those knowledgeable in the field, but is more up to date than ever, with technology that was still a lab experiment then having meanwhile taken its place in current culture or being about to do so. The Two Faces of Tomorrow has its flaws, but having been thoroughly obsoleted by the real world is not one of them (yet).

It's the year 2028, there is a world government, space colonies, and we have had lunar bases since the 1990s. Basically, the world has turned good, politicians have become reasonable, people less shortsightedly selfish, and the technophobes never made so much as a dent in the public opinion. Hogan envisions a global integrated computer and telecommunications network, TITAN, that handles everything from videotelephony to controlling the local traffic and the world's fusion plants. Dr. Raymond Dyer and his team are working on a successor to the current first generation of partially self-learning HESPER systems, when an accident on Luna casts serious doubt on the predictability of the quasi-evolutionary development such a system might undergo.

In order to facilitate the decision concerning future upgrades of TITAN, an experiment is to be performed. A next generation computer system, ominously dubbed Spartacus, self-learning, self-optimizing, and self-repairing, with its own manufacturing facilities, already programmed with a survival drive that might "naturally" develop otherwise, is to perform a role similar to TITAN's on Earth in the well-isolated miniature world of the Janus space habitat, where a crew of scientists and military personnel will try to establish how Spartacus will react to interferences potentially threating its existance, whether and how quickly it will learn to immunize itself, and whether it will turn against the humans, who will prove that the computer will never evolve to a point where it cannot be shut down by its creators any more.

Even in the real world, where such things don't always turn bad as they are bound to do in a novel, setting up a possible enemy of unknown but serious harmful potential just to prove that one can beat it doesn't sound like a good idea to me. However, the main flaw of the presented rationale, and thus of the novel that hinges on it, is the assumption that the one-time result of this confrontation between man and machine must necessarily apply to any such scenario. If Spartacus can be shut down successfully, so could be a mutated TITAN. Quite a leap of faith, but, alas, one that is required to allow the subsequent thriller to unfold.

In what can be a surprise only to the most naïve reader, Spartacus soon proves a quick learner, fiercely adaptive, evolves at a frightening speed, and eventually kicks real ass. I wonder whether Hogan considers it realistic that an experiment is continued even when people keep getting killed. That thought is quickly extinguished though when the ongoing action reaches a point where a shutdown has become impossible, due to all the fail-safes (totally insufficient, blatantly set up to fail) having turned inoperable. And while the people in charge are still thinking in terms of a scientific experiment, the confrontation has turned into a desperate fight for the survival of all parties involved.

The Two Faces of Tomorrow raises intriguing questions which it can't answer. The book suffers throughout, starting with the very implementation of Spartacus/Janus up to the deux ex machina at the end, from sacrificing the reader's suspension of disbelief in favor of telling a conventionally crafted action story. People who love to criticize Michael Crichton for setting up idiotic systems bound to fail will have a field day with Hogan here. Spartacus doesn't get any exposure as a character, and the human protagonists aren't in the way of the story but thoroughly unremarkable otherwise. Interesting idea, flawed execution.

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