The Cosmic Computer – H Beam Piper (1964)
‘During the System States’ War, Poictesme was the general HQ and supply depot for the final thrust at the enemy. When the war ended, the buildings, the munitions, the freeze-dried food supplies, were all abandoned without a thought. Now the colony world is a poverty-stricken agricultural society with only two exports: the fermented products of their world’s unique grapes, and the salvaged war equipment, now selling at about 1% of its true value.
And, persisting over the decades, is the legend of MERLIN, the super-computer said to have planned the grand strategy which successfully concluded the war. “If we could only find Merlin,” the inhabitants said to each other, “all our problems would be solved.”
Then young Conn Maxwell returned from Earth, with a university degree, and a few clues about the location and the true nature of Merlin. And the sure knowledge that finding the Cosmic Computer would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to his home world.’
Blurb from the 1978 Ace paperback edition.
As is made clear from the blurb, Conn Maxwell was designated to travel to Earth from the colony world of Poictesme, a world desperate for regeneration following an intersystem war, to try and identify the location of the super computer Merlin, which many of the colonists believe is hidden somewhere on the planet and which they see as their salvation.
Although Conn has identified the sites of many abandoned bases and spacefields likely to contain valuable equipment and ships, he has been informed that Merlin was a myth, invented to boost morale and demoralise the enemy.
After making this clear to a trusted few, including his father, they decide to publicly embark on the search for Merlin, their aim being to loot the abandoned sites, build enough finances to build a hypership and trade on their own terms with Earth, exporting their valuable melon brandy and revitalising their world. If this means lying to the public, then so be it.
One can argue that this is borderline SF at best. The society of Poictesme is lifted wholesale from the US of the Nineteen Fifties, along with its values and inevitable sexism. Piper has made no attempt to create a believable colony society and, as other critics have pointed out, has not considered that computers may have been miniaturised by the time Man has reached the stars. To be fair, he was never alone in this, and it is the least of this novel’s problems. It suffers for one thing from a surfeit of minor characters, many of whom are not fleshed out enough to be distinguishable from the rest.
It is at root a political farce, possibly a homage to James Branch Cabell, since the name of the world and its main town are lifted from Cabell’s work. It has dated considerably in comparison with other novels of the time. It also owes a lot to Asimov’s ‘Foundation‘ trilogy at the denouement which uses the same premise of analysing data to predict the future of human civilisation in the galaxy.
Interestingly, Piper seems to have been the inventor of the word ‘Collapsium’ which Will McCarthy later used to great effect in his novels of The Queendom of Sol.
Having said all that it’s an entertaining piece and mildly amusing in places, but is not an important work by any stretch of the imagination.