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When Harlie Was One
by David Gerrold

Reviewed by Raedom
Posted March 26, 2003

I know of no other genre of literature besides science fiction that has seen a novel published, and then later seen a revised version of that novel published. In SF, however, it has happened several times. Arthur C. Clarke seems to have started the whole thing off with The City And The Stars, a revised and expanded version of the earlier Against the Fall of Night. Samuel R. Delany also considerably revised the first book of his The Fall Of The Towers trilogy (Out of the Dead City). Even Harry Harrison did some minor revisions to one of his novels.

Both Clarke and Delany's revised novels were considerably different from their originals, Harrison's contained only minor changes, and a fourth writer, David Gerrold, published his novel When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One in two different versions that fall somewhere between the major overhaul of Clarke and Delany and the minor changes of Harrison. The plot of both novels is the same, the characters are the same, and much of the action is the same, but many of the details, dialogue, and sociology is greatly changed from the first novel to the second.

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Basically, the plot is that a computer, H.A.R.L.I.E., built using advanced technology, has become so complex as to become self-aware — that is, alive. Not a new thought, to be sure, but when the first version was published in 1972, still somewhat a novel idea. H.A.R.L.I.E (whom I will hereafter refer to as "Harlie" for simplicity's sake) was built using what Gerrold calls "judgement circuits" which allows the computer to program itself (i.e. "learn"), to seek out further information, and to formulate original ideas. As the story progresses, we find that these "judgement circuits" also give Harlie the ability to feel emotions.

If you're looking for an action-oriented story, this is not the story for you — there is nary a buckled swash in the whole thing. But if you like stories that present new ideas and new questions about old ideas (sometimes without answers), then you will enjoy either version of this book. [H.A.R.L.I.E, by the way, stands for Human Analogue Robot, Life Input Equivalents in the original novel, but is changed to Human Analog Replication, Lethetic Intelligence Engine in the revised version.) David Auberson is a psychologist and is in charge of the Harlie project, chosen because it was theorized that Harlie would become self-aware and a psychologist would be needed to guide it's (his?) development. Don Handley is a computer programmer and Auberson's assistant.

As the story opens we find that the company that originated the Harlie project has recently been taken over by a new group, headed by company president Brandon Dorne. The new group is very much concerned about the corporate bottom line, and has some serious questions about the potential for profit of the Harlie project, particularly a member of the board of directors, Carl Elzer. Although both Auberson and Handley are certain Harlie is, in fact, alive, neither Dorne nor Elzer are convinced, and let the project leaders know they are seriously considering shutting down the project, even though Auberson thinks that would be tantamount to murder.

The board does give Auberson a chance to prove that Harlie can be profitable however, and Auberson takes the problem directly to Harlie, telling him he (Harlie) must come up with an idea that will show the directors he can, in fact, earn his keep. When Auberson returns to his his office Monday morning after this discussion with Harlie, he finds stacks and stacks of computer printout in his office, his secretary's office, and on out into the hall. This is Harlie's response, and is a proposal to build a Graphic Omnicient Device (G.O.D.), an extension to Harlie's brain that will be able to answer any research question, compute any probability, and in general, will free mankind from making erroneous decisions about anything — including what job to take, whom to marry, etc. By the way, the total printout, not only that sent to Auberson's office, but also to Handley's and most other departments in the company, would, if stacked on top of one another, reach a height of 180,000 feet.

While Auberson, somewhat in a panic, is mulling over the G.O.D. proposal, he receives a visit from a Dr. Stanley Krofft, who has been corresponding with Harlie by email, thinking he is in touch with a human being. (Harlie is addicted to word-play, and, since he regards David Auberson as a father figure, adopted the name of Harlie, David's son, so signed his name Harlie Davidson.) On learning that Harlie is a computer Dr. Krofft insists on being put in touch with him, which Auberson does. President Dorne's executive secretary, Annie Stimson, makes friends with Auberson and allies herself with him, and eventually they become lovers. More on that later.

After receiving the G.O.D, proposal, the board meets again, and challenges Auberson and Handley to prove that this proposal would generate more profit than it will cost. How this is done and what part Dr. Krofft plays in it would be a spoiler for anyone who hasn't read the book but would like to, so I'll conclude my plot summary here.

It's fortunate for us readers that Gerrold decided to revise this novel. The first novel was written rather early in his career, and although a good story, had some obvious rough spots that were ironed out in the revision. Although the corporate infighting I outlined above is the overt plot of the novel, the conversations between Harlie and Auberson are the real point of the book, and those were much more clearly deliniated in the revision. Harlie and Auberson talk about virtually everything; love, life, death, God, the purpose of life, and other grand themes. Sometimes when reading a novel like this it's important to know which character is speaking with the author's voice. In Stranger in a Strange Land for instance, Valentine Michael Smith is the protagonist, but it's Jubal Harshaw that speaks for Heinlein. In the Harlie novels, I believe it is Harlie that is speaking for Gerrold. Auberson is introverted, paranoid, indecisive, and too much a muller-over of problems — in fact, I find it difficult that he and Annie fall in love. But then I have that problem with a lot of science fiction. The interpersonal relationship seems to be skimped, and we usually get something on the order of, "They meet, they are both attractive people, so they fall in love (they may or may not have sex before or after).

A note also on science fiction authors' projections of future societies, based on current trends. Science fiction has rightly gotten a reputation of projecting current technological trends into the future. Just read about fax machines, cell phones, microwave ovens, transistors, personal computers, the internet, space flight, communications satellites, and on and on in the science fiction of the 1950s. But how does sci-fi stack up on projecting sociological trends? I read not long ago a collection of science fact articles (not sci-fi) written in the 1970s by the great Isaac Asimov. In many of those articles, he was confidently predicting wide-spread famine and plague due to over-population and pollution. His target date for when this was to happen was before the year 2000. In the same way, Gerrold, in the original novel (begun in 1969 and published in 1972) confidently predicted the legalization of recreational drugs. He dropped all reference to that in the revised version.

Gerrold also made one major change in the plot, and that is in the ending. The revised version is much more logical and emotionally satisfying, but again I do not want to go into detail because it would be a definite spoiler. If you're looking for a good read, with some conversations between Harlie and Auberson that will make you think, I would recommend the revised version, published in 1988. If you're at all interested in observing an author's growth and development, read them both.

By the way, a little trivia. Most science-fiction readers, and particularly Star Trek fans, are certainly aware that David Gerrold was the writer of the enormously popular "The Trouble With Tribbles." I did not know, however, until I read the author's bio at the end of the revised novel that "Tribbles" was his first sale, and was written while he was still in college.


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David Gerrold

Revised 1988

Nominated for Hugo & Nebula

Out of Print
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