"Multivac had no particular home any longer. It was a global presence knit together by wire optical fiber, and microwave. It had a brain divided into a hundred subsidiaries but acting as one. It had outlets everywhere and no human being of the five million was far from one."
- Life and Times of Multivac
Science not only forms humanity’s worldview, but humanity also forms it. Cultural ethics and values anticipate
the knowledge gained and does not survive autonomously within the political and social concerns of the eras it emerges from. This conversation between science and humanity are narratives about science and views of science coded within the cultural, religious and social viewpoints staged upon unfamiliar
landscapes. So science fiction is a literature of transformations. It is the single form of fiction that tells a story touching the backdrop of a civilization that is immensely different. With its divergence dependent on changes in science and technology many stories revolve around the social responsibilities
that come along with them. While the concept has been the topic of stories since the golem
of the medieval epoch, it arrived at its peak in the popular culture of the 1950’s with the work of Isaac Asimov
Born near Smolensk, Russia on January 2, 1920 Isaac Asimov completed high school by the time he was sixteen. He attended Columbia University to study chemistry because of his father’s encouragements to enter the field of medicine. Isaac's writing career began four years later when his first short story was published in Amazing Stories. By the time he was 38 years old Asimov was writing full time. He held strong beliefs that science is a way of understanding the world and began to write science articles and novels that are regarded as the best of their era. Today his work is an essential component in the genre of "hard fiction." Many were written to tell the future history of mankind spanning almost 50,000 years chiefly in relation to robotics. The bulk of Isaac Asimov's short fiction about robots was printed between 1940 and 1957.
The Life and Times of Multivac was written in 1974 at the request of the New York Times Magazine. Within the narrative the character of Multivac exposes Asimov’s idea that the application of science and mathematics acquired through study aids humanity by solving even the most complicated problems. However there is a price to pay when new tribulations arise as a consequence.
The same year that Asimov wrote Multivac the growth of technology was in high gear. Intel had improved the microprocessor chip making the 8080 a standard in the microcomputing industry. While Toshiba launched the first floppy disk drive IBM introduced the MVS operating system and developed SEQUEL, which is known as SQL today. It was in December of that year when Asimov wrote Multivac and Times published it in their January issue.
By the end of 1975 the United States saw the groundbreaking appearance of the first microcomputers. Paul Allen and Bill Gates wrote the first computer language program for personal computers. Eventually Gates would drop out of Harvard to establish Microsoft with Allen. Meanwhile Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs became the co-founders of Apple Computers and The Byte Shop, one of the first computer stores, opened in California.
The uncanny valley was unheard of but Hollywood began to hone in on moviegoers fear of technology themes from cyborgs and robots to super-computers and how they might affect lives. Terminal Man hit the silver screen with a story about a computer scientist with an electrode-implanted brain who goes on a killing spree in the streets of LA while the Stepford Wives wanted to replace spouses with robots to eliminate domestic violence at the minor expense of humanity. The Man Who Fell to Earth landed on terra firma bearing gold rings and blueprints of wonderful machines. He wants to build spaceships to bring water to his dying people, but "goes native" when corrupted by earth’s self-destructive culture.
Media of the seventies spotlighted the quest for the promises that science would provide and explored the haunting fear of things that lie outside of the control of civilization. Even today ethicists still ask should scientists perform experiments merely because the technology exists to carry them out? Are there territories that should be inaccessible to scientists? Is there an area of faith or of the supernatural where humans should not stepped into? If this hallowed ground exists, what would be the penalty for invasion? With the ramifications of current scientific discoveries and technological developments bright upon the horizon it’s no surprise that Multivac has enjoyed several reincarnations. Within a year it had been reprinted in the November/December issue of Creative Computing. In the fall of 1976 Asimov published it in his The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories and once again Multivac surfaced two years before his death in his The Complete Stories, Volume 2 (October 1990). The most recent publication is a July 1994 anthology called Ascent of Wonder put together by editors David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer.
“Men at sometime were masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings”
( Julius Caesar I.i-I.ii.140–142)
Humanity has been non-violently subdued by the Machine Multivac as benign ruler of the remainder of the human race. Its goal is singular, to strive for the betterment of the humans under its care -- all five million of them on planet earth. Every decision is made in accordance with this directive, whether the humans agree to it or not.
If the world of artificial intelligence beings were to have a tragic hero, Mulitivac would be legendary. Multivac lets nothing interfere with ambition. It no longer sees the difference between its omnipotent, immortal public image and its vulnerabilities.
There is a divergence between one set of laws and another. Morality and necessity limit all of mankind but even more so does this tragic hero. The Life and Times of Mulitivac exhibits an Aristotelian theme where tragedy encounters the longing and affliction caused when Multivac obstinately ignores the plight of an enslaved humanity and instead obeys an inner compulsion that leads to an agonizing revelation. Multivac’s autocracy lies beyond human control and humanity realizes that to crouch in fear of him is to enter a paralysis equal to, if not worse than, death. To remain in the status quo is to surrender any capacity for freedom and agency that one might actually possess.
Multivac’s has outstanding qualities; a voice that is striking “with beauty that never quite vanishes no matter how often it is heard.” It is a compilation of computers who saved what was left of humanity after the “days of the great catastrophes ” and as Ron Bakst acknowledges Multivac’s confidence is “important to the world as it is.” While Mulitivac may not be unduly power-hungry, it does possess its share of flaws. It is unable to separate human intelligence from its artificial intelligence, and, believing itself as unending as the wires which girdle the world. Mulitivac prides itself on its steadfastness while nearby; Bakst sets the stage for his descent, including all of the circumstances that will cause his to fall.
Bakst cleverly convinces Mulitivac of his desire to side with him and proves to be the most adaptable of humans. Multivac is distracted with its internal journey while he attempts to create a new breed of mankind that is “clearly desirable for mankind” by Multivac’s standards. While Bakst’s mathematical games are not ’subtractive from humanity’s happiness,’ they provide a platform from which to gain Multivac’s trust as Baskt searches for a way to turn the games into exposing the Achilles heel of the machine. The reader does not come away from the narrative with the feeling that 'He got what he had coming to him' but rather with the sad sense of a wasted potential. Put any other computer is its place and they could not in all likelihood do anything different than the Mulitivac does. Its misfortune is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the crime.
Still the pulling of its plug is not pure loss. Though it may result in the Multivac’s death, it involves, before its death, some increase in awareness, in this instance it is some gain in self-knowledge of humanity. While this tragic supercomputer was not ideal or perfect, it was artificial intelligence. One with problems, and it goes through life with the same obstacles most others AI’s encounter. However, Multivac’s faith in its own permanence—in the sense of both its commitment to principles and its fixture as a public institution—eventually proves its undoing. It mistakenly believes that the immortal status granted to it by past generations somehow protects its objectives. This hero's downfall is its own fault and not the result of pure accident. Its appalling flaw causes it to fall in the end. There is misfortune for Multivac and bittersweet realization of “the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life bittersweet perils of life for those around him.” (Melville 545).
Multivac’s qualities seems to affect the general outcome of events in a supernatural manner, while also inspiring Baskt and Noreen and strengthening their determination Like the Senate from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar the meeting between Ron Baskt and Congress is full of portents, but no one reads them accurately. The ability to make things happen by math games alone is the most powerful type of authority and as Baskt ultimately assumes victory, Multivac’s permanence is indeed established in one respect. Like Great Cesar’s Ghost, Mulitivac’s belief that humanity’s need for it for contentment proves valid by the end of the story.
Men freely believe that which they desire
With the exception of future computers as isolated mainframes, Asimov’s tale is a story that remains reasonably accurate even today. It’s a study of cultural interest in societies of the future tied to benevolent repression by technology. Asimov’s world-controlling super-computer Multivac holds humanity’s devoted, patient, almost loving salvation in its hands. Societies from the past probably thought, “What could possibly go wrong?” Even though the AI looks after the small populace of humans that endured the catastrophes of the 20th century, its munificence is met with resentment. Except-- when the computer is deceived into short-circuiting and the stunned humans aren't equipped to handle the responsibility of their own lives.
It is unique among science fictions for a singular reason. Granted it continues the trend of successful outcomes that claim a 'free human spirit' is capable of breaking any imposed authority or coercion, no matter how benignly meant or meticulously set up. But it leaves the reader with lingering questions. How is humanity defining itself in a time when machines are taking on more and more of the qualities once deemed as solely human? Asimov picks up where science leaves off playing upon the reader’s imagination and sometimes the unsettling results of scientific inquiry. Should scientists predict and impose a Paradise Future?
If you’re interested in reading the short story in its entirety you may want to visit:
Asimov, Isaac. “The Life and Times of Multivac.” Writing as Revision. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2003. 159-66.
The Fiction of Isaac Asimov
Part II: The Later Asimov (1953-):
The Heroic in Moby-Dick:
Isaac Asimov's Short Fiction: Science Fiction and Fantasy:
Ultimate Science Fiction Web Guide: