The Machine That Won The War by Isaac Asimov

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1961.

multivacThe real Mulitvac is a vacuum-packing machine.

For all his hard SF reputation, Isaac Asimov’s stories are very rarely about hard science. The technicalities of artificial intelligence are breezily dismissed with a positronic wave of the hand and the mechanics of interstellar travel and a galactic empire are pretty much ignored in the Foundation series. Everything about his settings, in fact, is highly contrived to drive the particular point that Asimov wants to make.

He’s much criticised as a writer for his limited stylistic range, but in fact his utilitarian prose and flat, banal characterisation work in his favour. This recent article on Salon about The Caves of Steel (which, shamefully, I have not read) quotes Asimov as saying he through of himself as a historian rather than a fiction writer. ‘I wanted to write fictional history in which there are no true endings … in which, even when a problem is apparently solved, a new one arises to take its place. To this end, I sacrificed everything else.’

His particular style is ideal for this purpose. Far from being alienating, it depicts precisely the dreary personalities that drive events in the world of corporate bullshit that this story examines.

We find ourselves deep in the bowels of Multivac, the world’s most powerful computer. Two of Multivac’s chief operators and the Executive Director of the Solar Federation have gathered to celebrate the end of the war with the Denebians and discuss the decisive role played by Multivac in planning the eventual victory.

However, one by one, they reveal that they’ve fudged the operation of the computer and the outputs were the result of human intervention and not the pure sorting of data. As Executive Director of the Solar Federation Lamar Swift puts it, ‘It turns out than that the material handed me to guide me in my decision-making capacity was a man-made interpretation of man-made data.’

Far from being an impartial retailer of facts, Multivac is shown to be a product of a multiplicity of human factors: the faulty data, the contrived analysis, the final random decisions. Multivac’s output is the product of a sort of bureaucratic – and therefore entirely human – process. This is the machine that won the war, the corporate bureaucracy that was brought into being during World War II.

I was reminded of Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty when Henderson admitted to fudging the numbers:

‘Do you know,’ said Henderson, ‘to what extent data concerning our production capacity, our resource potential, our trained manpower – everything of importance to the war effort, in fact – had become unreliable and untrustworthy during the last half of the war? Group leaders both civilian and military, were intent on projecting their own improved image, so to speak, so they obscured the bad and magnified the good. Whatever the machines might do, the men who programmed them and interpreted the results had their own skins to think of and competitors to stab. There was no way of stopping that, I tried and failed.’

In the Soviet Union this led, of course, to collapse of the system so I suppose the Solar Federation should count itself lucky.

But, given that these guys were all working basically at random, you’ve got to ask yourself how the hell did they win? I think Asimov’s implying that it’s all essentially random here, but I’ve got another possibility: these guys have bullshit jobs and nothing they said or did had any effect on the war effort at all.

The link in the corporate chain missing from this story is delivery. We hear from research, we hear from analysis and we hear from the top-level decision-maker, but we never see how these orders were carried out. While these guys were making shit up from behind their, thousands of men and ships were, presumably, on the front line fighting the Denebians. One can only imagine that decisions made on the ground and individual acts of cunning and bravery won the day and that Executive Director Swift and his friends served the war effort the best by staying out of the way.

Themes: the corporation, bullshit jobs.


Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Golden Age of Science Fiction

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